DUP warned Thatcher over hunger strike deal
UK state papers:In 1981 DUP leader the Rev Ian Paisley expressed concern to British prime minister Margaret Thatcher about pressures being exerted by the Catholic Church in favour of a compromise with the hunger strikers.
He told the British government not to be taken in by Cardinal Tomás Ó Fiaich, but Thatcher praised the hierarchy’s stance.
Paisley met Thatcher on June 25th, 1981, to discuss security, accompanied by his then deputy, Peter Robinson.
Some 53 people, including 27 civilians, had been murdered by the IRA since they had last met, said Paisley, according to a record of the meeting. Following the murder of his cousin, Constable Kyle, the murderers had withdrawn to the village of Carrickmore, Co Tyrone, “a well-known Republican ghetto”.
It was widely assumed that as “the result of an agreement between the security chiefs and the Catholic Church”, certain districts had become “no go” areas.
Unless something was done to deal with the IRA, there would be “a vicious Protestant backlash which it would be impossible to contain”.
Ulster Defence Regiment
The prime minister asked what Paisley thought should be done.
He replied that the Ulster Defence Regiment should be authorised to operate anywhere in the North.
Second, when armed IRA men appeared, the police should be allowed to take them on. When five armed IRA men appeared in Carrickmore on election day, “they had been spotted by the RUC and could have been shot but the police officer in charge refused permission”, allowing them to escape.
Thatcher said it was not for her to tell the police how to do their job.
Paisley said that he was concerned about the pressures being brought to bear by the Catholic Church on the government in favour of a compromise with the hunger strikers. Whatever the Catholic bishops might say about violence, they always ended up with routine charges about injustices inflicted on the Catholic community.
It would be a tragedy if the hunger strikes were brought to an end by concessions on any of the five demands. “The government should not be deceived by Cardinal Ó Fiaich: he spoke with a double tongue.”
‘Cardinal was genial’
Thatcher said she thought the bishops had been courageous and their recent statement was a welcome one.
Later papers show British ambassador to Ireland Sir Leonard Figg was also impressed by the cardinal on an official visit to Armagh in February 1982.
Figg had travelled North with the permission of the Northern Ireland Office to meet the cardinal and his Church of Ireland counterpart, Archbishop John Armstrong, after the hunger strikes.
He reported to P H C Eyres at the foreign office: “The Cardinal was genial and welcoming . . . contrary to expectations, I found him a sincerely religious character who genuinely appeared to treasure the close relationship he has formed with his Church of Ireland and Methodist opposite numbers.”
On the hunger strike, the cardinal had suggested that the British might have avoided it if they had offered “own clothing to all prisoners earlier in 1981”.
Figg reported to London: “I suggested that this might well be so but that we would have had to face a hunger strike later on, since I did not believe that the deadly onslaught on the prison system represented by ten deaths could have been warded off by fiddling with the details of prison administration. To my mind both parts of Ireland would have suffered dangerously if the hunger strike had succeeded in winning political status . . . Curiously enough, the Cardinal appeared to agree although he had looked a bit stoney at times.”
The ambassador’s conversations with both prelates inevitably turned to Paisley. Figg noted: “Both the Cardinal and the Archbishop loathe Paisley and have their Paisley stories. The Cardinal, in fact, has never met his Free Presbyterian brother, but the Archbishop has. The latest contact was made by Paisley hoping that the Archbishop would join with him and other churchmen to discuss the Kincora sex scandal with the Secretary of State.”
Figg recorded that Armstrong had received “a very firm steer” from the RUC to have nothing to do with such an approach and had complied. This had led to “two of Paisley’s aides making atrocious and abusive telephone calls to the archbishop personally”.
* Éamon Phoenix is principal lecturer in history at Stranmillis University College (QUB)