Minutes show how Fr Faul and Prior paved way to hunger strike resolution
At Cardinal Ó Fiaich’s behest, Fr Denis Faul set out his view of the prisoners’ position and how the strike might be ended. In turn, NI secretary of state Jim Prior pledged to take a conciliatory approach
THE MINUTES of a crucial meeting between the then new British secretary of state Jim Prior and Cardinal Ó Fiaich and Fr (later monsignor) Denis Faul, the leading human rights priest, days before the ending of the republican hunger strike are released today.
The role of Fr Faul in persuading the remaining hunger strikers’ relatives to seek medical intervention played a key part in the winding-up of the protest while the appointment of Jim Prior to the Northern Ireland Office on September 13th, 1981 paved the way for a resolution.
Cardinal Ó Fiaich and Fr Faul called at Stormont Castle on September 30th, 1981 at the invitation of Prior. The secretary of state said he was aware that there had been misunderstandings in the past but hoped that these could be avoided in the future.
Turning to the hunger strike, the cardinal invited Fr Faul to set out his understanding of the situation. The priest did not think more hunger strikers would die unless any of them suffered “a sudden collapse”. He believed the families would take them off before death. He had visited Block H3 the Sunday before and had found mixed views about continuing.
He emphasised the strength of feeling among the protesters: “They were relatively isolated, were inward-looking and they had a deep sense of loyalty to each other after five years of suffering and ill-treatment, as they did to their colleagues who had died.
“The atmosphere was oppressive and sectarian. The prison staff were of different religious and political loyalties and the men on the protest had suffered cruel and degrading treatment.” He knew of the view that the protesters had committed violent crimes but their attitude was influenced by the belief that the security forces had committed illegal acts and yet escaped prosecution.
Fr Faul believed that even if the hunger strike ended – as he hoped it would – the problem which gave rise to it would continue. The prisoners would be very bitter if they were forced into defeat and needed some “cover” if they were to climb down. They had no trust at all in the British and believed they had been deceived the previous December. It was essential “to take the sting out of defeat by making concessions”.
In his view work and association (with other prisoners) were now the sticking points but the prisoners would be helped to end the strike if they could receive back all their lost remission.
Prior noted that the cardinal and Fr Faul believed that Lord Gowrie’s recent meeting with the relatives of the hunger strikers had been useful. He emphasised that he wished to see an early end to the hunger strike and would avoid any talk of victory or defeat; nor would he wish the government to claim any credit.
He appreciated that any changes which might be made to the prison regime after the hunger strike would have to be precise and clearly established so that there was no chance of misunderstanding or recrimination. He was having this examined in detail. But the first essential was that the hunger strike must end.
Changes to the prison regime would have practical difficulties which would first have to be overcome; a more generous regime on clothing, for example, would take some weeks to introduce.
Fr Faul emphasised the importance to the prisoners of being able to maintain their military structure. “The OC was in charge and the atmosphere in the protesting blocks was military. He had been struck, for example, by the extent to which the prisoners viewed the deaths of their colleagues on hunger strike with the same kind of calm acceptance that soldiers had towards death of their fellows in battle.”
Fr Faul pointed out that “there would never be peace” while some 1,000 men were in prison. In his view it would be necessary to grant an amnesty.
COUNTDOWN: LEAD-UP TO HUNGER STRIKE
June 1972:Britain granted “special category” status to paramilitary prisoners following a hunger strike by IRA leader Billy McKee. Republican and loyalist prisoners could wear their own clothes and be kept apart from other paramilitary groups.
March 1976:Special category status was withdrawn, as Britain resolved to treat all prisoners as criminals. The first IRA prisoner jailed under the new regime, Kieran Nugent, refused to wear a prison uniform, wearing a blanket instead, in pursuit of a campaign to regain “political status”.
March 1978:A row over washing facilities and “slopping out”, and the “blanket protest” escalated to the “dirty protest” in which prisoners smeared excrement on the walls of their cells.
Late summer 1979:The IRA deferred a prison hunger strike timed to coincide with pope John Paul II’s visit to Ireland to allow an international anti H-Block campaign to take place.
October 1980:IRA sanctioned prison hunger strike. Seven prisoners refused food, later joined by 30 others in a campaign to win back “political status”.
December 1980:Hunger strike called off, and recriminations break out. The prisoners said the concessions promised in return for calling off the strike were not delivered by the authorities.
March 1st, 1981: IRA prisoner Bobby Sands refused food, and other IRA and INLA prisoners joined at weekly and fortnightly intervals.