McGuinness played role in hunger strike tragedy
McGuinness played role in hunger strike tragedy

Sinn Fein’s Martin McGuinness has revealed that he was a conduit for an offer from the British government to the 1981 hunger strikers.

Mr McGuinness, who has never previously confirmed if he played a role during the hunger Strike, reveals that the message passed to him from the intermediary Brendan Duddy was then passed to Gerry Adams in a phone call and on to the Sinn Fein Press Officer Danny Morrison who passed the message to the prisoners.

However, Mr McGuinness disputes claims that there was an offer on the table that was acceptable to the prisoners and accuses Sinn Fein’s political opponents of attempting to portray Margaret Thatcher as being someone who was anxious to solve the dispute.

Many republican veterans and relatives of the hunger strikers were upset by the publication last year of the book ‘Blanketmen’ by former IRA prisoner Richard O’Rawe, in which he suggested that the Sinn Fein leadership rejected the offer for political reasons.

Mr O’Rawe claimed that a crucial conversation took place -- shouted through the windows of Long Kesh prison in the Irish language -- in which the IRA officer in charge inside Long Kesh prison, Bik McFarlane, agreed there was ‘go leor’ (understood by O’Rawe to mean ‘enough’) in the reported offer.

Both McFarlane and the Sinn Fein leadership have denied this version of events. Danny Morrison has questioned whether any genuine offer existed at all. Others have suggested the contradiction is the result of a misunderstanding rather than a deception.

Nothing in writing was used as communications through the intermediary channel were entirely verbal. However, British government documents, dating from the time of the hunger strike and recently revealed, indicate that the contents of a statement had been prepared which might have been released if the prisoners had called off the hunger strike.

The strike resulted in the death of 10 IRA and INLA prisoners. It has been argued that six of these lives could have been saved had the British offer been accepted by the republican leadership outide the prison.

The most contentious allegation is that the prisoners’ lives were sacrificed to further Sinn Fein’s political aspirations. However, no evidence has emerged to indicate that the British offer was rejected by the republican leadership for any tactical or strategic reasons.

In another twist, the former 26-County Taoiseach, Garret FitzGerald, has claimed that his government had a spy inside the prison at the time.

It was Fitzgerald’s belief that a deal proposed by the British after the death of the fourth hunger striker in 1981 was vetoed by the Sinn Fein leadership -- a claim rejected by Martin McGuinness.

Mr O’Rawe and others have claimed that the offer could have amounted to three or four of the prisoners’ five demands for political status.

“Out of the five demands the only thing the British were offering to the hunger strikers after four men had died was that they could wear ordinary clothes, ‘provided these clothes were approved by the prison authorities’, said Mr McGuinness.

Mr McGuinness said the documents released this year by the British government were selective. He also pointed to a gulf of trust which existed at the time with the British, who he described as “a ruthless, hypocritical enemy, personified by Margaret Thatcher”.

Mr McGuinness claimed the British government “refused six times” to send in someone “to stand over what London was implying in messages” in the hours before the death of the fifth hunger striker, Joe McDonnell.

Another former IRA prisoner who took part in the 1981 hunger strike, Laurence McKeown, suggested that the British may have opted not to follow through on their offer because of strong opposition by local unionist officials.

It is broadly acknowledged that following the death of Joe McDonnell, the possibility of a similar deal never resurfaced.

However, the repercussions of the events of July 1981 continue to be felt and have left O’Rawe and others demanding an independent inquiry. Sinn Fein has been accused by other critics of “control freakery” and attempting a damage limitation exercise rather than an open examination of the course of events.

Most of the families of the hunger strikers have said they do not believe the allegations -- the family of Kieran Doherty said the claims had caused them “untold hurt and anguish”. Other families have criticised Sinn Fein for avoiding an inquiry.

Mr McGuinness encouraged people to read the book ‘Ten Men Dead’ for a full account of the hunger strike. He said that, despite the controversy, the stature of those who died was “unassailable and increases with every passing year”.

His account of his role in the hunger strike is published below.

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