Today sees the publication of British and Irish government papers that are being released under the 30 year rule. There are hundreds of documents. Some are minutes of meetings involving the then British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher. Others are reports of briefings of unionist politicians by the NIO. Some are letters written by former Taoisigh Charlie Haughey and Garret Fitzgerald and assessments of the political situation at different times in the course of that momentous year.
This blog has 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 young children killed by plastic bullets. The events of that year had a profound impact on subsequent developments.
However, it is very clear from an initial examination of the papers that the British government in 1981 had adopted a fixed, intransigent and at crucial points a duplicitous approach to finding a settlement. It consistently refused to deal with the substance of the prison protests and was prepared to allow prisoners to die.
The NIO played a particularly obstructive role aided by the then Secretary of State Humphrey Atkins and his junior Minister Michael Alison. Both were very much influenced by the attitude of Unionist political leaders.
One event which has already been the focus of some media comment is a claim by the Pope’s envoy Fr. John Magee that in a meeting with Bobby Sands that Bobby 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 OC of the prisoners 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 Brendan 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 discussions between Atkins and Fr. Magee, which were held at 12.30 p.m. in Stormont Castle on April 29th – 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 – and would also provoke a violent reaction within the Province which would threaten innocent lives. Father Magee said he thought that the prisoners would not be inflexible: they wanted evidence of goodwill because promises had been made to them at the end of the last hunger strike and had not been kept. The SoS emphasised to Father Magee that no promises had been made at the end of the last hunger strike. That fact was well known to Sands … 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 Downing Street.
There are transcripts of 8 telephone calls over the weekend of July 4 to 6th between the British agent and the Derry ‘back-channel’ who was given the code-name ‘Soon’. This was just before the death of 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…’
It is also stated in respect of another call that: ‘Soon reported that a great deal of confusion has arisen in Provisional circles … Soon then described the circumstances of the issue of the Prisoners’ statement of 4 July. He said that the statement had been issued independently by the prisoners in the Maze and the timing came as a surprise to senior Provisionals outside … Unfortunately, the timing of the release of the statement had caught the Provisionals unaware.’
This was not true. The statement had in fact been issued by prisoners through the Sinn Féin POW department and the Republican Press Centre. I chaired the Sinn Féin committee responsible for handling the prison struggle, contacts with the prisoners, with the British and anyone else. We had seen this statement before it was issued and ‘Soon’ would have known this.
A report of another call claims that: ‘Soon began by restating the Provisionals disorganised position.’ Not true.
According to the Brits he also tells them that, in respect of the end of the December 1980 hunger strike: ‘the Provisionals believed that HMG had been sincere in trying to implement their side of the agreement. The breakdown had occurred because some of the prisoners had been harassed by some of the prison officers …’
While the prison administration and prison officers worked hard to prevent the prisoners positively working through the December paper from the British, at no time then or since did anyone in the Sinn Féin leadership believe that the British government was ‘sincere’ in implementing that agreement.
The British also reported that according to ‘Call No 7, 2300-2400, 5 July’: ‘Soon had been called into an angry and hostile meeting of the Provisionals almost verging on a complete breakdown. .. At this point Soon indicated that a considerable number of Provisionals had arrived. ..’
The line of communication was very straight forward, although cumbersome. The prisoners communicated with the Committee I chaired on the outside. I then dealt with Martin McGuinness who met ‘Soon’ in Derry. No one else was involved in the meetings with the back-channel.
These and other inconsistencies raised in these records only confirm this blog in my view that in negotiations ‘facilitators’ or ‘intermediaries’ can unintentionally or deliberately create problems by not relying messages accurately.
Finally, among the many matters raised in these papers one in particular stands out. It has been claimed by some that an offer was made by the British and relayed to Brendan McFarlane by Danny Morrison in a visit to the prison on Sunday July 5th.
It is claimed that this ‘offer’ was the substance of the five demands and that it was blocked by outside because the leadership wanted more prisoners to die for political advantage.
This lie has caused great hurt to the families of the hunger strikers who subsequently died and to those of us who were involved in the efforts to save them.
These transcripts reveal that no offer was made to the prisoners on 5th July and that at the time of Danny Morrison’s visit to the prisoners on that day the British government had not formulated its position: ‘Soon then indicated that McGuinness had just arrived. He said that time was of the essence and asked what the current HMG position was. We explained it was important before drafting any documents for consideration by Ministers that we should possess the Provisionals view. Soon then undertook clear views on their position. Which would be relayed to us later after discussions in the light of Morrison’s visit’.
Another myth busted.
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. Next week this blog will return to the papers and identify other interesting aspects of developments 30 years ago.