Insights by a key Northern Ireland Office (NIO) official at the time of the 1980-81 hunger strikes by republican prisoners at the Maze Prison are included in previously confidential British government files made public in Belfast today as part of the regular release of state papers.
The hunger strikes grew out of republican opposition to the withdrawal of special category status for convicted paramilitary prisoners. Seven prisoners took part in the first hunger strike, which ended after 53 days in 1980. The second hunger strike in 1981 led to the deaths of 10 prisoners, including Bobby Sands who was elected as an MP before he died.
One file deals with a request from the distinguished Dublin-born academic, Prof Pádraig O’Malley, who is based in Boston, for a series of interviews with British ministers and officials involved in the hunger strikes. It says Prof O’Malley gave the NIO an assurance that if the British government agreed to provide material, written or oral, it would have the right to review and withdraw it before publication.
The file shows Prof O’Malley’s request elicited varying responses from officials.
R J Kendrick, director of prison operations at the NIO, was against offering any assistance. “We have already seen one hunger strike saga which in my view should not be allowed into our prisons.”
However, in a handwritten note, dated July 30th, 1986, S C Jackson, a senior official, felt Prof O’Malley’s book “might well turn out to be a serious, not wholly unbalanced study of the 1980/81 hunger strikes. These were, in any view, significant events of legitimate public interest.” Mr Jackson felt officials might be approached to assist. On July 21nd, 1986, Prof O’Malley met NIO minister Nicholas Scott to discuss it.
His request for assistance received strong backing from Mr Scott who wrote to two former British ministers at the time of the hunger strikes – Michael Allison, the former prisons minister, and his successor, Lord Gowrie who was involved in resolving the crisis.
‘Intelligence and integrity’
Mr Scott wrote to Mr Allison on August 12th, 1986 commending Prof O’Malley’s motives.
"[He] has worked very hard in the past to try to bring a greater level of understanding between the people of the troubled North and his impartiality and intelligence are sought out by anyone who is responsible for the political future of Ireland. His book, The Uncivil Wars, must be compulsory reading for any incoming British Minister to the NIO."
As a result, arrangements were made for Prof O’Malley to interview Sir John Blelloch, the deputy under-secretary at the Ministry of Defence who had been the key advisor to Mr Allison during the hunger strikes. The discussion between Sir John and Prof O’Malley took place at the Ministry of Defence in London on September 24th, 1986 and was tape-recorded.
As a result, a transcript of their discussion is in the file, as well as a detailed aide-memoir from Sir John to Sir Robert Andrew, then permanent secretary at the NIO.
In it, Sir John summarises his memories of the crisis in response to questions from Prof O’Malley, whom he describes as “a nice man of intelligence and integrity”. He said Prof O’Malley had clearly been talking to Cardinal Tomás Ó Fiaich and Bishop Edward Daly “and accordingly he put to me their view that if the British government had offered the prisoners their own clothes in October 1980 [before the first hunger strike] there would have been no hunger strike.”
He said he had rejected that assessment on the grounds that “the hunger strike... was all about reversing the government’s decision to end Special Category Status [IN 1976]...”.
He said “own clothes” was only one element involved in that status and, if it had been conceded under the threat of a hunger strike, the prisoners would have used pressure to secure their other demands. In his view, the demand for free association was arguably the most important.
Sir John said he had recalled he was the only “NIO civil servant who had gone into the prison in December 1980” and “there had been no question of any dealings on the issue of the right of prisoners to wear their own clothes”. Turning to the 1981 hunger strike, and the aftermath of the death of Bobby Sands in May 1981, Sir John recalled two meetings he and Mr Allison had with the Irish Commission of Justice and Peace (ICJP). “It became clear to us… that they [ICJP]were saying more to the prisoners than they ought to.”
When Prof O’Malley raised “the Commission’s belief that we had somehow welched on an undertaking to send a senior civil servant into the prison for a further bout of explanation”, he had replied that “no promise to that effect was given”.
In conclusion, Sir John said Prof O’Malley had asked him if there was any real difference in the British government’s approach to decision-making as between the first and second hunger strikes.
His reply was that “the second strike was more likely to lead to a death or deaths than the first one if only because of Sands’ own apparent determination... but that difference apart we saw the issues in exactly the same way.” On the question of whether there was scope for an accommodation, Sir John said he answered “no”, given the gulf between the Thatcher government’s position and the prisoners’ demands.
Prof O'Malley is the John Joseph Moakley Distinguished Professor of Peace and Reconciliation at McCormack Graduate School at the University of Massachusetts Boston. His book Biting at the Grave: The Irish Hunger Strikes and the Politics of Despair was published in 1990 by Beacon Press, Boston and Blackstaff Press, Belfast.
Dr Éamon Phoenix is a political historian and commentator based at Stranmillis University College, Queen’s University, Belfast. He is a member of the Taoiseach’s Expert Advisory Group on Centenaries.