Charles Haughey and the hunger strikes: ‘a political disaster’

Despite his reputation as a firebrand nationalist, Haughey broadly endorsed Margaret Thatcher’s policies and opposed the strikers’ ‘five demands’ - until he left office

Charles Haughey’s inability as taoiseach to influence Margaret Thatcher’s thinking in relation to the hunger strike left him in the one position he despised most: “politically impotent”. Once in opposition, he swiftly performed a U-turn and backed the hunger strikers’ demands. Photograph: PA

Charles Haughey’s inability as taoiseach to influence Margaret Thatcher’s thinking in relation to the hunger strike left him in the one position he despised most: “politically impotent”. Once in opposition, he swiftly performed a U-turn and backed the hunger strikers’ demands. Photograph: PA

 

To put it bluntly, taoiseach Charles J Haughey’s involvement with the second republican hunger strike of 1981 was a political disaster. During the depths of this crisis Haughey was forced to play a marginal role, banished to the political side-lines. His repeated attempts to act as a mediator between British prime minister Margaret Thatcher and the republican movement, in an effort to bring the hunger strike to an amicable conclusion, was an abject failure.

New archival research reveals the extent to which Haughey came under repeated pressure, both from within his own Fianna Fáil party and the wider republican movement, to concede to the republican hunger strikers’ so-called “five demands”. In fact, throughout this crisis, despite his reputation as a firebrand nationalist imbued with Anglophobia sentiments, Haughey endorsed the majority of Thatcher’s policies vis-à-vis republican hunger strikers, refusing to publicly support the hunger strikers’ central demands during his period in office until Fianna Fáil’s general election defeat in June 1981.

Haughey’s alleged “silence” on this issue, to quote Owen Carron, Bobby Sands’ election agent, was widely condemned, even among large sections of the Irish populace opposed to republican paramilitary violence. The republican leadership under Gerry Adams was particularly astute at propagating the message that Haughey had “sold out” on his republican principles, having become “a collaborator” with Thatcher’s government, to again quote Carron.

As I argue in my new book, “A failed political entity”: Charles Haughey and the Northern Ireland Question, 1945-1992 (Merion Press, 2016) during the second Republican hunger strike campaign, particularly following the death of Sands in May 1981, Haughey cut a very depressing figure. His inability to influence British thinking in relation to the hunger strike left him in the one position he despised most: “politically impotent”.

Haughey and the Five Demands

The second republican hunger strike commenced on March 1st, 1981 and was led by Bobby Sands. The hunger strike was staggered. Sands was to start first, on his own. After him additional prisoners, usually in groups of two, were to join at two/three-week intervals (Francis Hughes was the second prisoner to join the hunger strike on March 15th).

The hunger strike took on a new level of intensity in early April following Sands’ election as Westminster MP for Fermanagh-South Tyrone. Sands’ election and the growing sympathy for the hunger strikers’ campaign at home and abroad set off alarm bells in Dublin. Haughey was particularly worried of the impact that Sands’ impending death might have on public opinion in the Irish Republic.

Consequently, Haughey attempted to act as broker between republicans and Thatcher. In public, for the meantime at least, he refrained from criticising the British government’s dealings with the hunger strikers; indeed, in private, Haughey concurred that Thatcher must not agree to the hunger strikers’ “five demands”.

The Haughey-Thatcher relationship

On the morning of April 22nd, at the request of Haughey, Dermot Nally, secretary to the Irish Government, telephoned his counterpart in London, Sir Robert Armstrong, Thatcher’s cabinet secretary. Nally expressed his government’s anxiety over the ongoing hunger strike. He said that “the Taoiseach and his colleagues were very worried that, if Sands died in the next five or six days, ‘the whole area would go up in flames’.” Later that afternoon, on Haughey’s request, the British ambassador to Ireland, Leonard Figg, met with the Taoiseach at Government Buildings. Haughey asked whether the British might consider granting further concessions in relation to the “five demands”.

Two days later, on April 24th, following consultation between Thatcher, Armstrong and Humphrey Atkins, secretary of state for Northern Ireland, Figg was ordered to report back to Haughey that the British Government’s policy remained unchanged. Thatcher was adamant: no further concessions “would be granted”.

By early May, as the hunger strike entered its third month and following a failed intervention on behalf of the European Commission of Human Rights, Haughey faced increasing pressure, particularly from those close to Sands, to publicly call on the British Government to concede to the protesters’ five demands. On May 4th, Carron issued a statement declaring that “despite pleas from the Sands family, from myself and from public opinion to act publicly on the five demands, Mr Haughey has remained silent”.

Events reached a crescendo the following day. On May 5th, 1981, Sands passed away on the 66th day of his hunger strike. Gerry Adams wasted little time in attacking Haughey for the taoiseach’s refusal to demand that the British government grant the prisoners’ five demands. “Mr Haughey has attempted to distance himself from responsibility for Bobby’s death,” Adams declared.

Despite such protests Haughey refused to budge, again refusing to publicly support the protesters’ calls for the granting of the “five demands”. The situation only intensified following the passing of a second hunger striker, Francis Hughes, on May 12th, after 59 days on hunger strike. The deaths of Sands and Hughes compounded Haughey’s anxieties. He believed that if a “greater degree of flexibility had been shown by the British government, the latest tragedy could have been averted”.

There was now a widespread perception that Haughey had been far too lenient in his dealings with Thatcher in relation to the hunger strike. Indeed, the signs were ominous considering that Thatcher had gone out of her way to personally express “her appreciation” to Haughey regarding “the calm line he has taken” during the crisis. “Like him,” Thatcher explained’, “she had tried to keep alive the search for peace and reconciliation.”

The 1981 Irish general election

On May 21st, following the deaths of two further hunger strikers, Raymond McCreesh and Patsy O’Hara, Haughey dissolved the Dáil, claiming that he was calling the election because of the grave situation in Northern Ireland. Between the convening of the Irish general election and Fianna Fáil’s eventual relegation to Opposition on June 30th, Haughey franticly attempted to convince Thatcher to concede to some of the hunger strikers’ demands.

This was Haughey’s last throw of the dice as he desperately searched for a new initiative that might see him remain in power. On June 18th, Haughey informed the British prime minister that “the situation in Dublin is difficult, and is going downhill”. The taoiseach felt that the “lull before the next death of a hunger strike might be a time to get things moving”.

Haughey’s latest intervention was again politely rebuffed by London. By this stage, in Thatcher’s mind at least, Haughey had become obsolete in helping find a solution to the ongoing crisis. Instead the focus for London shifted firmly towards the republican leadership, under the guise of Sinn Féin. In a personal message to Haughey she noted that the “problem in Northern Ireland had not been created by HMG”. “[I]t was not easy,” she deplored, “to see what HMG could do. It was for others to move.”

Haughey was furious by Thatcher’s latest cold shoulder. On June 27th, the taoiseach summoned Figg to his office. Haughey informed the British ambassador to Ireland that Thatcher “was simply not showing the sense of urgency required to end the hunger strike”.

It was events outside Haughey’s personal control that brought his direct involvement with the second republican hunger strike to an end. On June 30th, Fianna Fáil were replaced in government by a shaky Fine Gael-Labour coalition, with the support of several Independents and led by taoiseach Garret FitzGerald. Two H-Block candidates, Paddy Agnew in Louth and Kieran Doherty in Cavan-Monaghan, were also elected to Dáil Éireann.

Conclusion

During the republican second hunger strike campaign Haughey was stuck between a rock and a hard place. His inability to influence Thatcher in relation to the H-Block protests, together with his decision not to publicly condemn British policy on this issue, left him vulnerable to accusations of political indecisiveness.

Despite his attempts to play a meaningful role in finding a negotiated settlement to the second republican hunger strike during 1981 Haughey was forced to the political margins. He therefore suffered from political paralyses as Thatcher repeatedly refused to permit him a functional role in the process.

On finding himself exiled to the Opposition benches Haughey did not take long to abandoning his previous opposition to the republican hunger strikers’ calls for the granting of the five demands. In fact, following a one-hour meeting at his Georgian mansion in Kinsealy, Co Dublin with Owen Carron, on September 1st, 1981, Haughey called for a settlement to the hunger strikes “on the basis of the five demands”.

Haughey’s sudden U-turn demonstrated his frustration (and annoyance) with Thatcher’s unwillingness to permit him a role in helping to find a solution to the hunger strikes. His decision also revealed the mounting pressure he was under from within the Fianna Fáil organisation and the wider nationalist community to take a harder line in relation to the crisis.

This availability of new research, as outlined above, reveals the extent that the Fianna Fáil government under Haughey was unable to influence British government policy in relation to the second republican hunger strike. In Thatcher’s mind, at least, Haughey would be consulted if requested, otherwise he should know his place and refrain from involving himself or his government in the affairs of Northern Ireland.

The contents of the above article are sourced from Stephen Kelly’s new monograph, ‘A failed political entity’: Charles Haughey and the Northern Ireland Question, 1945-1992 (Dublin: Merrion Press, 2016)

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