NIO unionists vetoed hunger strike deal

By Jim Gibney (for Irish News)

“It’s Mrs Thatcher who crosses out the relevant parts of the document that indicate she, the British government, is not prepared to give in on work and association.”

This is veteran writer and broadcaster Peter Taylor’s assessment of the recently-released British state papers about a crucial moment in the 1981 Hunger Strike, just 48 hours before thedeath of Joe McDonnell. The amended document he is referring to was verbally sent by the British via Brendan Duddy in Derry to the Sinn Fein committee advising the prisoners. In it Thatcher also supported northern secretary of state Humphrey Atkins who refused to reinstate lost remission, one of the prisoner’s key demands.

Having refused to engage for 128 days, during which four hunger strikers died, the British on the night of the July 6 1981 gave republicans until 9am the following morning to take or leave an unsatisfactory offer.

They warned that if there was any mention of the exchange they would deny it happened.

This was the mindset that the prisoners, their families and supporters had to overcome.

At the end of December every year the British and Irish governments release many, though not all, of the minutes of cabinet meetings, messages from their ambassadors and internal emails from ministers.

The documents are certainly not infallible nor full accounts as this official notice indicates: “The documents listed above, which were enclosed on this file, have been removed and destroyed.”

However, we do get a greater appreciation of what influenced the British establishment and its servants in their dealings with the hunger strikers and with Taoisigh Charles Haughey and Garret FitzGerald - “he talks too much; he talks too fast; he is an intellectual; and he impertinently claims, because of his family connections, to understand northern Protestants”.

The papers describing events between July 4 and the death of Joe McDonnell on the July 8 are the most compelling.

At this time the Irish Commission for Justice and Peace (ICJP) was forlornly trying to get the British to act, while behind the scenes republicans were in contact with the British via Brendan Duddy.

In the early hours of Monday July 6 the British government received (via Duddy) Sinn Fein’s assessment, based on the prisoners’ conciliatory July 4 statement, of what was required to end the Hunger Strike.

After this Humphrey Atkins advised Thatcher: “My judgment,and that of [prisons minister] Michael Alison who has been close to the latest moves with the ICJP, is that the best course is to continue to stand firm. There is always the chance that the strike will, in whole or in part, collapse of itself leaving the Provisional leadership humiliated.”

However, London stated in a phone call to Brendan Duddy that “it would be useful to have some idea of what would be acceptable to the Provisionals” and “their view on the nature of the settlement”.

So, they agreed to send the statement in advance “to enable the Provisionals either to approve it or point out any difficulties before publication”.

But when Sinn Fein did just that, the British would accept no adjustments.

Other papers show Humphrey Atkins claiming that when the British rejected the amendments and closed down the channel Sinn Fein sent back a message advising that it was not the content that they objected to but the tone.

Sinn Fein disputes this characterisation of its message.

The British cabinet did discuss sending an amended message but it was never sent and Joe McDonnell and five other hunger strikers died.

That NIO unionists vetoed any compromise can be seen in a later account of cabinet minutes on July 18 regarding Thatcher’s final position: “She was more concerned to do the right thing by Northern Ireland than to try to satisfy international critics. Mr Atkins observed that, from a purely NI point of view, he would rather do nothing. After further discussion, the PM decided that the dangers in taking an initiative would be so great in NI that she was not prepared to risk them.”

For Thatcher ‘doing the right thing’ resulted in the deaths of 10 hunger strikers inside the prison and more than 50 people outside as the north was convulsed by violence arising out of the British government’s intransigence.

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© 2012 Irish Republican News