Commentary (Sunday Times)

Northern Ireland: “Was Gerry Adams complicit over hunger strikes?” (newly released British documents)

Document type: Press
Source: Sunday Times , 5 April 2009
Journalist: Liam Clarke, Sunday Times
Editorial comments: The documents released can also be read in full on this site
Importance ranking: Major
Word count: 1,708
Themes: Northern Ireland, Terrorism

April 5, 2009

Was Gerry Adams complicit over hunger strikers?

Papers suggest IRA snubbed a conciliatory offer from Margaret Thatcher to ensure Sinn Fein by-election win to Westminster

Liam Clarke

Read the documents here

Did five, or even six, of the republican prisoners who were on hunger strike in the Maze prison in 1981 die to advance the political strategy of Sinn Fein?

Did Gerry Adams and other members of the IRA kitchen cabinet snub a conciliatory offer from Margaret Thatcher, then the British prime minister, which met the substance of the prisoners’ demands, just to ensure that Sinn Fein would win a crucial by-election to Westminster?

These are the explosive questions raised for Sinn Fein by papers released to The Sunday Times under the Freedom of Information Act.

They reveal that in July 1981, halfway through the hunger strike that claimed 10 lives, Thatcher not only authorised secret communications with the IRA, she was also willing to offer prisoners the right to wear their own clothes and agree to other key demands in defiance of her previous policy.

“It seems that the Iron Lady was not so steely,” says Richard O’Rawe, a former IRA inmate who was the spokesman for the protesting prisoners during the hunger strike. O’Rawe, whose book, Blanketmen, is an insider’s account of the 1981 protest, has called on his former Sinn Fein and IRA colleagues to come clean.

“This was enough to end the hunger strike” says O’Rawe.

The Irish National Liberation Army (INLA), a left-wing republican breakaway group, two of whose members died on hunger strike after the offer from Thatcher was made, was also unaware of the proposal.

In a statement released to The Sunday Times, the Irish Republican Socialist party, the INLA’s political wing, said: “Both the then INLA army council and the INLA prisoners’ OC have stated that if they had been made aware of the content of these developments at that time, they would have ordered the INLA prisoners to end their hunger strike.”

Gerard Hodgins, a former IRA member who was on hunger strike when it was officially called off, added: "\ [Editorial addition: sic] was something like what we ended up with. If I had had the full facts at the time - that there was a deal on offer - I definitely wouldn’t have had anything to do with the strike.”

AT the outset, the hunger strike was seen by Thatcher as “the IRA’s last card” and she was surprised at the prisoners’ resolve. A previous strike in 1980 had ended inconclusively when the first of the prisoners neared death and she assumed that the same would happen the second time around. The IRA shared her analysis.

Adams in an RTE interview in 2006, said: “I was against the strike because I thought that people were going to die. And also, to be quite tactical about it, because we couldn’t afford another huge prison crisis which then ended the same way as the first one.”

The analysis that the 1981 hunger strike, which began on March 1, would damage the IRA started to change early on. Bobby Sands, a charismatic character, was elected to Westminster from his prison cell as MP for Fermanagh and South Tyrone on April 9, 1981.

Sinn Fein’s policy was against standing in elections and Adams wanted to change it. Sands’s election was a breakthrough, but after his death a month later, the law was changed to stop another prisoner standing in the by-election.

Owen Carron, a Sinn Fein member who acted as Sands’s election agent, was nominated as a “proxy prisoner” candidate. If he could win Sands’s seat for Sinn Fein it would set the precedent Adams needed. But, for that to happen, the hunger strike had to continue until August 20, when the by-election was to be held.

This, O’Rawe believes, was a strong motive for those outside the prison to keep the protest going. Michael “Red Mickey” Devine, the tenth and final hunger striker to die, breathed his last the day Carron was elected.

Devine’s son, also called Michael, commenting on the new documents, said: “These latest disclosures have added substantial weight to claims that the last six hunger strikers’ lives could have been saved. Did my father and his five comrades die because a number of individuals didn’t like the tone of Thatcher, despite accepting the content of her offer?”

The answer to this question lies in a few days of frantic negotiation in July 1981. Four hunger strikers had already died and to all sides there seemed to be a natural break as the fifth, Joe McDonnell, neared death.

Thatcher was tempted into negotiations by a conciliatory statement drawn up by O’Rawe and approved by Brendan “Bik” McFarlane, the IRA’s OC in the Maze.

The key concession was that it explicitly withdrew the demand that the government should treat the republican inmates as “prisoners of war” with a different regime from ordinary criminals.

Republicans would “warmly welcome” improvements in conditions for all prisoners. Their central demand was to wear their own clothes, a right already granted to female republican prisoners in Armagh jail. They also sought a redefinition of prison work.

The papers show that on July 5, a day after the statement was issued, direct contacts were opened with the IRA. Brendan Duddy, a Derry businessman, has confirmed that he was the link, but has declined to discuss his role. Adams was also in the chain, as was an MI6 officer.

According to the documents, 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”.

A telegram from the Northern Ireland Office to the Downing Street cabinet office says that this proposal was first made “privately to the Provos on July 5”. O’Rawe says McFarlane sent him details of the offer. They agreed it was sufficient to end the hunger strike and that their conversation was heard by other prisoners.

“I couldn’t believe our statement had got this reaction, it seemed almost too good” O’Rawe says. McFarlane denies this conversation took place.

The next day, the IRA Army Council rejected the offer. O’Rawe accepted the decision, believing that there was more in the pipeline.

He was right. In the early hours of July 8, Thatcher had a meeting with Humphrey Atkins, the secretary of state for Northern Ireland, “to discuss the latest developments in the efforts to bring an end to the hunger strike” according to a letter from Downing Street.

She heard that her message had been conveyed to the IRA, who initially rejected it but then came back a short time later, suggesting “that it was not the content which they had objected to but only the tone”.

Thatcher and her team took advice on the language needed to secure a deal. They then sent the IRA a draft statement that could be issued if it accepted the offer. If there were any leaks, everything would be denied.

A few hours later, at about 5am, McDonnell, who was expected to last a few days longer, died after 61 days on hunger strike. His death put paid to negotiations for a few days and there was widespread violence on the streets as republican anger mounted.

In the coming weeks, Martin Hurson, Kevin Lynch, Kieran Doherty, Thomas McElwee and Devine also died.

On July 18, the IRA asked for an official to go into the Maze to meet the prisoners. Thatcher was considering an improved offer, incorporating the earlier statement, making it clear that if the prisoners did not want to work in the prison workshops, the maximum penalty would be some loss of remission.

Atkins advised Thatcher not to send an official into the prison, fearing that the offer would become public and could not be withdrawn, even if the hunger strike continued. His fear that the IRA would simply pocket the concessions and ask for more brought the initiative to an end.

By now, the strike was falling apart. One hunger striker, Pat McGeown, was told by McFarlane to keep quiet about his misgivings, after raising them with Adams. In a remarkable “comm”, as the letters smuggled in and out of the prison were called, McFarlane told Adams of disquiet among several other strikers, who plainly doubted that further deaths could advance their cause.

One comm suggested involving the SDLP in negotiations. McFarlane reported to Adams that he had told the dying men that they had two options : pursue their demands or capitulate. “I told them I could have accepted half measures before Joe died, but I didn’t then and I wouldn’t now.”

McElwee, who would die on August 8, suggested pointedly that McFarlane should go on hunger strike himself “to ward off Brit propaganda tactics.”

McFarlane replied that he wanted to, but the IRA wouldn’t let him.

“I told them that the price of victory could be high and they might all die before we got a settlement” he said in a letter to Adams.

“It chilled me when I read that. Capitulate is no term to use to keep friends who are facing death in line,” said O’Rawe.

But victory for whom? As the hunger strike teetered towards collapse, the families became increasingly restive and McFarlane reported his efforts to keep the hunger strikers in line to Adams.

It nearly ended when Fr Denis Faul, a priest who visited the prison frequently, called a meeting of hunger strikers’ families on July 28. The families met Adams and asked him to go into the prison to order the end of the strike on behalf of the IRA leadership.

When Adams went to the prison he took Carron with him, dressed in his election suit. Faul said he believed that his presence would put pressure on the hunger strikers to keep up their protest until August 20, by which stage many of them would be dead. His fears were justified.

After the election, the hunger strike collapsed under pressure from the families. The IRA formally ended the strike on October 3, with no more deaths.

“The struggle didn’t produce the results we had hoped for but the leadership ended up all right,” Hodgins recalls, flatly.