Thatcher papers disclose efforts to resolve 1981 hunger strikes

Two senior republicans still in dispute over whether there was potential for a deal when just four of 10 hunger strikers had died

A hunger strike protest on the Falls Road in 1981.

A hunger strike protest on the Falls Road in 1981.


Two key republican figures remained in deep dispute last night about the content of Thatcher Foundation archive papers released last week that relate to the 1981 hunger strikes at the Maze prison, in which 10 men died.

Former IRA prisoner Richard O’Rawe argued yesterday that the papers demonstrated that in early July 1981 there were the makings of deal that would have solved the hunger strikes when just four men had died. He said republican prisoners accepted the offer but it was overruled by the IRA.

The former Sinn Féin director of publicity Danny Morrison countered that while there had been some “opening statements” about how to put together a British government offer to resolve the strikes, nothing approaching a concrete offer was available at the time.

The Thatcher papers show how the contact known as “Soon”, the Derry businessman Brendan Duddy, engaged in intermediary talks between senior British officials and “Provisional” republicans at a time when four protesters had died.

One long memo in particular illustrates how Mr Duddy, acting as a mediator between senior Provisional republicans that included Mr Morrison, Gerry Adams and Martin McGuinness and senior British officials, made eight phone calls to the officials in an effort to fashion a deal to end the hunger strikes.

This was on the weekend of July 4th and 5th 1981, shortly before the death of the fifth hunger striker, Joe McDonnell, on July 8th. As part of that mediation Mr Morrison was allowed into the prison on July 5th to contact some of the prisoners.

What happened in those meetings, and in those go-between contacts with British officials, has led to the continuing bitter dispute between senior republican figures of the time – such as Mr Adams, Mr McGuinness and Mr Morrison – and Mr O’Rawe over whether or not the protest could or should have ended at that stage.

Mr O’Rawe repeated yesterday that at that time the prisoners’ leadership accepted an offer to end the strike but that this was overruled by the IRA. He believed this was to assist the political ambitions of Sinn Féin, and to facilitate Owen Carron in August taking the Fermanagh-South Tyrone seat in a vacancy caused by the death of Bobby Sands.

Mr Morrison responded yesterday that he did not have a specific offer to put to the prisoners when he went into the prison on July 5th and that the prisoners did not accept any offer at the time.