An Avoidable Tragedy: Long Kesh 1981
Deaglán de Bréadún
Every year I am assigned with colleagues to peruse the newly-released State Papers. It’s a pity to have to absent oneself from the current political scene for a while, especially when there is so much happening in the contemporary world. But it is also quite informative to read through the internal government documents of yesteryear and you frequently gain a fresh insight into events that, in the present writer’s case, you actually lived through.
As expected there is a mountain of documentation on the Maze/Long Kesh hunger-strike. I have already filed a post on this issue but it is worth taking a second bite at the cherry.
The first thing that should be said is this: Hunger-striking is a deadly and fearsome act. You damage yourself and bring pain to all your loved ones. It is not something to be embarked upon lightly. It is generally accepted that even the IRA leadership did not want their associates in the H-Blocks to set out on that fateful fast. Hunger-striking is an action that is very hard to justify under most circumstances.
The Long Kesh hunger-strike was somewhat different from other such fasts one has read about. The prisoners were not being oppressed in the normal sense, as conditions appear to have been good for conforming inmates. The problem here was the denial/withdrawal of political status, exemplified primarily in the right to wear one’s own clothes at all times.
There was a document in the Irish archive about a senior Vatican diplomat expressing wonderment to a British representative that Her Majesty’s Government would not allow the prisoners to wear what they liked. What was the big deal?
Perhaps it was a reflection of the obsession with status in British society which was then mirrored by a counter-obsession on the part of the prisoners.
There has been controversy over the visit by Father John Magee, the Pope’s Secretary, to Bobby Sands, shortly before the IRA prisoner died. An internal British document – the claim is also reported in the Irish archive – tells us Fr Magee informed the British Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, Humphrey Atkins, that Sands was prepared to suspend his fast for five days to allow direct negotiations.
The reaction of republicans has been shock and denial. They insist their friend Bobby would never have offered a concession like that. But what’s the big deal?
Sands was insisting on fellow-prisoners being present (IRA commanders in the Maze), the document states. So that bit of what one might call republican protocol was being preserved. He would have had direct negotiations with the British – a major propaganda coup. Even if the talks fell through, he would still have emerged a winner and might even have come through the whole thing alive. As an aside, one can say that a person of his determination and strong will could have made a significant contribution to the peace process and subsequent political developments.
Fr Magee gave what amounted to an order from the Pope of Rome that Sands should give up his fast. That has to have made a strong impression on a young Belfast Catholic, unversed in the ways of the world and in a very weak state physically. It is amazing that he did not obey.
But it may have been as a concession to the head of his church – a personage regarded as infallible in matters of faith and morals – that he offered to suspend his fast in return for direct talks.
Atkins turned down the offer. HMG could not be seen to be in direct public talks with an IRA man. Status again.
Yet we know that the British were in direct contact with senior republicans through the later-to-be-famous Michael Oatley. We know that even Margaret Thatcher was not as hardline in private as she proclaimed herself in public.
There was a serious lack of trust, arising from the previous hunger-strike of 1980 where the prisoners thought they had won the right to wear their own clothes but, in fact, were offered “civilian-type” clothing. The republicans were all over the place and pretty confused, judging from the documents. Securing Red Cross or European Commission of Human Rights intervention would have been an international propaganda victory; haggling over any issue other than clothing was essentially irrelevant.
There is controversy, too, over last-minute contacts between the British and the republicans shortly before Joe McDonnell died in early July. A row has been going on for years now as to whether or not the republican leadership turned down an offer that was acceptable to the prisoners, so that Sinn Fein’s Owen Carron would retain the Westminster seat won by Bobby Sands. This argument will probably never be settled, as there are differing political perspectives as well as contrasting versions of events involved.
Now we have the Boston College imbroglio. Republican and loyalist activists gave interviews about their past deeds on the basis that these would not be published in their lifetimes. This promise now appears to have proven unsustainable, at least in the case of one interviewee.
The past may be another country but we keep making involuntary visits there.