Early hopes give way to hostility and suspicions


It was a long summer of claims, counterclaims and negotiations to try to bring the IRA hunger strikes to an end

APRIL 1981

WHEN BOBBY Sands became MP for Fermanagh and South Tyrone on April 11th, some British officials hoped his election might encourage the IRA to move away from violence and into politics.

Sir Kenneth Stowe, permanent under-secretary of state at the Northern Ireland Office, told cabinet secretary Sir Robert Armstrong that there was “reason to believe that the PIRA have been thinking seriously about an end to the campaign of violence, but feel that they need a success and an avenue to pursue their aims politically”.

As more prisoners joined the hunger strike, however, officials concluded that the IRA was primarily interested in short-term political gain rather than a new departure. On April 29th, with Sands expected to die within a few days, an intelligence assessment suggested that IRA “tactics have been determined on a day-to-day basis to take advantage of opportunities as they occur and it is unlikely that they have any clear policy on what to do next”.

MAY 1981

On May 11th, Dermot Nally, secretary to the Irish government, was visited in Dublin by Sir Robert Armstrong, his British counterpart. Both men agreed that the IRA was not, at that point, interested in an escape route from the strike. “The ‘wild men’ thought they were on to a winner and were determined to pursue their present line as far as possible,” Nally said.

The following day Francis Hughes became the second hunger striker to die. The British embassy in Dublin reported a growing feeling in Ireland that this yet was another instance “when British political sense and acumen are switched off when faced with Irish problems”.

On May 21st, Margaret Thatcher’s principal private secretary Clive Whitmore warned that the deaths of Raymond McCreesh and Patsy O’Hara (an INLA hunger striker) were imminent, after which there was likely to be a three- to four-week hiatus until the next striker would be close to death.

“There was no sign that the Provisional Irish republican leadership, which was controlling the strikes, would let them give up,” he wrote, adding that there was “no doubt that McCreesh’s family, including his brother, who was a priest, had specifically dissuaded him from breaking fast on 16 May.”

On May 26th, Thatcher hosted a high-level meeting with secretary of state Humphrey Atkins, RUC chief constable Jack Hermon and Gen Sir Richard Lawson, the GOC of the British army in Northern Ireland, at Chequers, the prime minister’s country residence.

Both Hermon and Lawson emphasised their fears of the increasing alienation of the Catholic community. “If the government could dispel the impression of inflexibility and could get over instead that its policy was magnanimous and caring, these risks might be reduced,” they suggested.

Thatcher remained “rock solid” against concessions. At the end of May, when her civil servants wrote to the European Commission of Human Rights to reassure it that the government would be prepared to respond to “anything the other party may put forward”, she was furious. “No, no, no!” she wrote in the margins. “This implies that if they moved we would move.”


By June 12th, even Atkins, who had previously shared Thatcher’s hardline position, warned that in the perception of the outside world, “the line between firmness and intransigence is a narrow one”. In a memorandum entitled “The Need for Movement”, he wrote: “We may outface the hunger strikes, but we shall pay a heavy price for doing so.”

According to an intelligence- based analysis dated June 16th, some officials had previously believed that a consequence of increasing involvement in electoral politics by the Provisionals “might be a reduction in the amount of energy they put into their terrorist campaign”.

Now it was feared that “the Provisionals ‘gone political’ can succeed, where their terrorist activity has failed, in reversing the progress of recent years towards ‘normality’ and renewing for them a base from which a revitalised terrorist campaign could be launched”. As the hunger strike continued into mid-June, both the British and Irish governments became increasingly convinced that the hunger strikers were “pawns” in the strategy of the IRA leadership.


On June 18th, 1981, senior Irish civil servant Dermot Nally called Downing Street on behalf of Charles Haughey to report that “there is at present some tension in relations between the parents of the hunger strikers, the hunger strikers themselves and the Provisional IRA controllers outside, which could be exploited”.

On June 23rd, 1981, the Irish ambassador in London, Eamon Kennedy, went to Downing Street to personally submit a letter from the taoiseach urging “another initiative”, on the back of a recent statement by Irish bishops criticising the strike.

Thatcher responded by telling Kennedy that while she welcomed the church’s intervention, the IRA was “in the hands of left-wing extremists who were not greatly interested in the views of the church” and “it was not easy to see what HMG could do”.

On June 25th, Nally called Downing Street again to suggest that “there is significant room for manoeuvre”.

Sir Robert Armstrong, the cabinet secretary, also believed that the IRA leadership might be amenable to a settlement. Although they had gained in terms of propaganda, “they must be apprehensive lest, if the succession of deaths is resumed, public opinion could swing against them and they might lose what they have gained”.

When Nally called back the next day, he told Armstrong “it was now a question of ‘percentages’”. Some “slight movement – not a major step”, might bring a resolution to the stand-off between the government and the prisoners.

Towards the end of June, the British government began tentative discussions with the Irish Commission for Justice and Peace (ICJP), a body set up by the Catholic Bishops Conference, which had made proposals for improvements in conditions in the Maze Prison.

Following these discussions, in a policy statement on June 30th, Atkins stated that changes in work, clothing and association might be possible, while reiterating the government’s bottom line that political status would not be considered and that the prison authorities must retain full control of the H-Blocks.

JULY 1981

On July 1st, new taoiseach Garret FitzGerald once again informed the British that there were strong indications that the prisoners themselves wanted a deal.

The following day, Atkins told a cabinet meeting that the Provisional leadership felt under pressure from a “combination of signs of weakening resolve among some of the hunger strikers, a desire among moderate Catholics to see a reasonable settlement related to the ICJP’s proposals, and a reaction to manipulation of the families”.

On Saturday July 4th, Atkins publicly raised the prospect of “general improvements” being made in prison conditions, while insisting that the government would not act “under duress”. In other words, the strike had to end before any changes were implemented.

The same day, a statement was telephoned to the NIO (Northern Ireland Office) on behalf of the prisoners which recognised “that not all five demands would be achieved”. The IRA however still required “firm guarantees” by the British government “before the prisoners considered a ‘move’.”

The statement insisted there was no discrepancy between the prisoners’ position and that of the outside leadership, although British officials did not believe this to be true.

At this point, the IRA leadership made direct contact with the British government through an established “channel of communication” which had been used at previous points in the 1970s. That channel is presumed to have run from Derry businessman Brendan Duddy and MI6 officer Michael Oatley. In this batch of British state papers, the figure believed to be Duddy is referred to as “Soon” or “the channel”.

According to Soon, the July 4th statement by the hunger strikers was “issued independently by the prisoners in the Maze and the timing came as a surprise to senior Provisionals outside”. Although “the content did represent what was previously agreed”, Soon said it had “caught the Provisionals unaware”, with the leadership “dispersed”.

Nonetheless, Soon was “optimistic” that the basis for a deal was in place. This would involve an end to the hunger strike, followed by immediate concessions on clothing (prisoners would be allowed to wear their own) and parcels and visits, to give the IRA a “face-saving way out”. The issues of work and association would be dealt with shortly afterwards.

When Soon called back on July 5th, he said the Provisionals did not like the ICJP acting as a “mediator” and took a “destructive” view of its proposals. They were also suspicious of the fact that the British had not contacted them directly if they were serious about a deal. In reply, the British stated that, when it came to “the channel”, they “had only ever initiated calls in response to queries for clarification”.

Soon said that Danny Morrison, Martin McGuinness and Gerry Adams were the only individuals of sufficient clout to offer the “persuasion, education and knowledge” to push through any deal. The British made special arrangements for Morrison to be allowed to enter the Maze to talk to the prisoners directly, although they rejected a request that McGuinness be allowed to join the delegation.

(Morrison has challenged the British account of these events, as reported in The Irish Times of last Saturday, December 31st, on page five, headline “McCreesh family deny British claim”.)

Soon also said he had managed to convince the IRA leadership that the government was “not interested in any settlement unless the hunger strike is called off first” and was “fairly confident that this was acceptable”.

At 11pm on July 5th, however, things seemed to turn for the worst. Morrison had returned from his visit to the prison with a series of “alarming reports”.

According to Soon, the situation “was now so bad that the possibility of any settlement was seriously in doubt”. There was “a complete feeling of hostility among the prisoners towards the ICJP . . . [which] had created an alarmist view of the sincerity of HMG, and every type of neurosis imaginable was surfacing within the Provisional leadership”.

“From an apparently enthusiastic position,” according to a summary of the conversation, “Soon had been called into an angry and hostile meeting of the Provisionals almost verging on a complete breakdown”.

There were “many incoherent abuses aimed at the Soon channel, with the implication that the time spent in discussion on the Soon channel had been a front by HMG to enable the ICJP to manoeuvre the prisoners into an impossible position”.

At 1am on July 6th, Soon rang back to convey the agreed position of the IRA leadership, which was that the prisoners’ statement was the only basis for a successful deal and that they insisted that they were given a draft response by the government before they called off the strike.

It was only at this point that Thatcher was told by Atkins that in conjunction with the ICJP efforts, the government had been “approached by a third party who is trusted by the Provisional leadership”.

He made it clear that “no negotiations have been taking place but it is obviously only sensible that if the Provisional leadership wish to communicate something to us indirectly about this critical problem, we should listen”. Their views were “important because so far they seem to be largely in control of the strikers”.

Meanwhile, other British officials reported that there were “indications that the PIRA leadership are concerned that one or other of the prisoners might give up; and also that the work of the ICJP might put them in a humiliating position”. They were also worried that “more pressure from the families” might tip things in the government’s favour.

On July 6th, Thatcher approved a message to be sent through “the channel” which outlined the terms of a deal. The clothing regime in Armagh prison would be applied to all prisons in Northern Ireland (allowing prisoners to wear their own clothes), restrictions on parcels, visits and letters would be lifted and there was “scope for yet further developments” on work and remission.

If there was a “satisfactory” response, the government was prepared to provide the Provisionals with an advanced text of the arrangement.

On July 7th, following a high- level meeting at Downing Street, the secretary of state for Northern Ireland told the prime minister: “Following the sending of the message which you approved last night, we have received, as you will know, an unsatisfactory response. That channel of activity is therefore no longer active.”

The Provisionals, he reported, “did not regard it as satisfactory and that they wanted a good deal more. This appeared to mark the end of this development and we made this clear to the PIRA.”

In a dramatic twist, however, just after midnight on July 8th, Atkins met Thatcher again to inform her that – following the shutting down of the channel – the IRA had told the government that it was “not the content of the message to which they had objected but only its tone”.

It had also hinted that a slightly revised statement “would be enough to get the PIRA to instruct the prisoners to call off the hunger strike”. For the moment, Atkins recommended that the government hold firm to its position (although another deal was to be offered 10 days later)

Later that day, however, public recriminations began as it became clear that the expected deal had not materialised. The ICJP accused the NIO of clawing back on previous offers and the British government became increasingly concerned about its international reputation.

On July 14th, a foreign office minister suggested that the only way to prevent any more deaths was to feed the prisoners intravenously, against their will. If this option was taken, the prison authorities would also have to restrict visitors because “any relatives and priests allowed in may well be fanatical enough to wrench out the drip and smash the equipment”.

The same day, the foreign secretary Lord Carrington raised the prospect of “force feeding” in a meeting at Downing Street because of the damage being done to Britain’s international reputation by the deaths. Others suggested surreptitiously inserting glucose into the water provided to those fasting.


Another document in the prime ministerial files, dated July 18th, reveals that the British made one last attempt to revive the deal. NIO officials confirmed that they offered the same deal but with “fuller words” and it was passed through “the channel” again. Once again, when a satisfactory response was not forthcoming, the channel was shut down.

At midnight on July 19th, however, FitzGerald called Downing Street to suggest that there might be an opportunity to “persuade the prisoners to overrule” Brendan McFarlane, the IRA leader in the H-Block, who was now seen as an obstacle to the settlement.

On July 19th, the priest of Kevin Lynch (an INLA hunger striker), told British officials that the relatives of Lynch and Kieran Doherty wanted an NIO official “to clarify the government’s position to Lynch and Doherty respectively, on the same basis as before – ie without McFarlane present”.

At this point, however, the strikers themselves seemed to have intervened and said they wanted McFarlane present. According to prison authorities, Lynch had previously stated that he did not want McFarlane there.

On July 21st, officials finally concluded that the Provisionals “are not prepared to accept our position about prison conditions”.

Intriguingly, they also claimed that “we have a clear acknowledgement from McFarlane (which we are already making use of) that the hunger strikers have no power to give up”, although they did not elaborate further.

On July 30th, Atkins noted that “external pressures from the families, from interested priests, from others concerned about the situation – will now be focused on Brendan MacFarlane as the ‘hard man’ who is apparently discouraging the hunger strikers from ending their fast”.

The following day, July 31st, is usually seen as the day in which the hunger strike began to break, after Paddy Quinn’s mother insisted on medical intervention to save his life, although there were to be four more deaths before the strike officially ended in the first week of October.