Archive (Northern Ireland Office)

Northern Ireland: MT meeting/phone exchange with Northern Ireland officials & Secretary of State (record of conversations) [decision not to take further initiative on hunger strikes] [declassified 2009]

Document type: Declassified documents
Venue: No.10 Downing Street
Source: Northern Ireland Office FOI release AP/07/50 (documents released to Liam Clarke of the Sunday Times )
Editorial comments: Sir Philip Woodfield was the official head of the Northern Ireland Office. Following the meeting record is a second, undated document released as the fourth item in the file. The NIO held back sections of these documents where deemed irrelevant to the request and retyped the originals. These have been retranscribed for this site, but PDFs of their versions are available on request. Some minor transcription errors would seem to have been made by the NIO. The full original of the conversation record has now been released from MT's files and can be read here.
Importance ranking: Key
Word count: 3pp
Themes: Northern Ireland, Terrorism

Extract from a letter dated 18 July 1981 from 10 Downing Street to Northern Ireland Office

As you know Philip Woodfield came in here this evening to brief the Prime Minister on the situation in regard to contacts with the hunger strikers in the Maze prison. He explained to the Prime Minister the sequence of events in the last 36 hours leading up to this afternoon’s statement by the PIRA about the need for an official to go to the Maze to meet the hunger strike.

Mr Woodfield told the Prime Minister that Mr Atkins felt that the Government had to respond to the PIRA statement either with a statement of its own along the usual lines refusing any negotiation or by sending in an official to clarify the position to the hunger strikers yet again. The official would set out to the hunger strikers what would be on offer if they abandoned their protest. He would do so along the lines discussed with the Prime Minister last week. He would say that the prisoners would be allowed to wear their own clothes. as was already the case in Armagh prison, provided these clothes were approved by the prison authorities. (This would apply in all prisons in Northern Ireland.) He would set out the position on association; on parcels and letters; on remission; and on work. On this last point he would make it clear that the prisoners would, as before, have to do the basic work necessary to keep the prison going: there were tasks which the prison staff could in no circumstances be expected to do. But insofar as work in the prison work shops was concerned, it would be implicit that the prisoners would be expected to do this but that if they refused to do it they would be punished by loss of remission, or some similar penalty, rather than more severely.

Mr Woodfield emphasised that the official would not be empowered to negotiate. He would simply be making a statement about what was on offer to the hunger strikers if they abandoned the hunger strike. The statement would be spelling out what had been implicit in the Government's public statement and explicit in earlier communications. We would aim to avoid argument on the conditions under which the meeting had been arranged. We would simply say that we had done it on our own terms. There could be no guarantee that acting in this way would end the hunger strike. However there had been one or two indications that the hunger strikers were hoping to come off their strike.

The Prime Minister agreed that a further effort should be made to explain the situation to the hunger strikers. The official who went in should stick closely to the statement which had been drafted last week. He should go in to the prison early tomorrow morning.

However following further discussions, in the course of which it was drawn to the Prime Minister’s attention that any approach of the kind outlined above to the hunger strikers would inevitably become public whether or not it succeeded, the Prime Minister reviewed the proposal on the telephone with the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland. Mr Atkins confirmed that it would not be possible to keep the initiative quiet once it had been communicated to the hunger strikers. The Prime Minister said that she had thought the approach could be made on the same basis as before and that therefore nothing would be lost by trying. However it seemed that this was not the case. She was more concerned to do the right thing by Northern Ireland [end p1] than to try to satisfy international cities. Mr Atkins observed that, from a purely Northern Ireland point of view. he would rather do nothing.

The Prime Minister asked whether it would not be sufficient for the official to repeat the Secretary of State’s previous statement. Mr Atkins said he did not think this would do the trick.

The Prime Minister asked whether a detailed offer along the lines set out above were made and failed, he could hold the prison officers. Mr Atkins thought that this would be just about possible. The Prime Minister pointed out that once the offer of own clothes had been made publicly, it would have to be implemented whether or not the hunger strikers called off their strike. Mr Atkins agreed. After further discussion, the Prime Minister decided that the dangers in taking an initiative would be so great in Northern Ireland that she was not prepared to risk them. The official who went into the prison could repeat the Government’s public position but could go no further. The Secretary of State agreed. [end p2]

Extract from a document titled ‘Hunger Strike’

I understand that our network of contacts are being followed-up as agreed. Mr Blelloch has a check on this in hand.

[Editorial addition: document undated]