On Friday the British government released papers under the 30-year rule that deal with the conflict in Ireland and in particular, the 1981 hunger strikes. There are hundreds of documents. Some are minutes of meetings involving Margaret Thatcher.
I have read some but not all of the papers. Academics, historians and journalists will be poring over the detail of these for months to come and trying to fit the story they tell into what is already known. They deserve the closest scrutiny.
There is of course the important health warning. These are government documents, written in their time with the bias of those political systems. So care is needed.
The H Block/Armagh prison protest and the hunger strikes were watershed events in recent Irish history. Ten prisoners died. Over 50 other people were killed during the summer of 1981, including children killed by plastic bullets.
However, it is very clear from an initial examination of the papers that the policy pursued by Thatcher in 1981 was inflexible, intransigent and at crucial points duplicitous. The papers reveal a British prime minister who consistently refuses to deal with the substance of the prison protests.
One event which has already been the focus of some media comment is a claim that in a meeting with the pope’s envoy Fr John Magee, Bobby Sands had offered to suspend the hunger strike for five days.
I have never heard this claim before. Moreover Bobby was very clear in his approach to the hunger strike. The prisoners had agreed procedures among themselves to ensure there would be no repeat of the events of the previous December when the first hunger strike ended.
The prisoners wanted Brendan McFarlane, officer commanding in the H Blocks, and someone from outside to be part of any discussions about any British government proposals. This was to protect the hunger strikers and the protest. Several days before Magee’s visit Bobby had refused to meet two members of the European Commission of Human Rights without Brendan McFarlane being present.
Bobby viewed Magee’s visit as pastoral. In none of his subsequent conversations with either Jim Gibney or messages to McFarlane did he mention making any offer to Magee. For him to have made such an offer and not mention it would have been totally out of character because Bobby diligently reported any developments. In my view he certainly would have mentioned such an important proposal.
However, whatever the veracity of the Magee claim the British response is clear. According to the record of the meeting between Humphrey Atkins (the British secretary of state) and Magee, which were held at 12.30pm. in Stormont Castle on 29 April – 7 days before Bobby died – Atkins told Magee: “that there could be no negotiation: that was what Sands was trying to initiate. The government had no intention of conceding political status … To concede that would be wrong … At the end of the meeting the SoS explained, and Father Magee accepted, that the SoS could not see Father Magee again because to do so would risk creating the impression that some form of negotiation was going on. There was no question of negotiation and the SoS would not to continue to make that quite clear.”
The other aspect of this period that will be of interest to many is the detail provided by the British of their engagement with and abuse of the “back-channel”. This was a line of communication between a Derry based contact – Brendan Duddy – and a British intelligence agent Michael Oatley who had direct access to Thatcher in Downing Street.
There are transcripts of eight telephone calls over the weekend of 4 July between the British agent and the Derry “back-channel” who was given the code-name “Soon”. This was just before the death of hunger striker Joe McDonnell.
The papers raise serious questions about the relationship between London and Soon.
For example, according to the British papers Soon had an agreed code word with them. The paper says: “At the outset Soon indicated by a prearranged code that he was accompanied by a representative of the Provisionals. He had previously suggested that in this situation we should adopt a hard line … “
These and other inconsistencies in these records only confirm me in my view that in negotiations “facilitators” or “intermediaries” can unintentionally or deliberately create problems by not relaying messages accurately.
The hunger strike and its repercussions on individuals, families and the political life of this island were far reaching. The papers that have been released provide another insight to a tumultuous period.