Hunger Strike: Margaret Thatcher’s Battle With the IRA (1980-1981)

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Hunger Strike: Margaret Thatcher’s Battle With the IRA (1980-1981)

Thomas Hennessy
Irish Academic Press, 488pp, £19.99

A senior member of the royal family is blown up on his yacht together with his 14-year-old grandson, another teenager and an elderly lady. Hours later, 18 soldiers are killed by two roadside bombs in an ambush on British soil. The following year, prisoners belonging to the terrorist organisation responsible begin the first of two hunger strikes, in which ten of them will die.

Riding on a wave of religion-infused nationalism, one of the strikers is elected as an MP as he starves himself to death. When his organs finally fail, an estimated 100,000 people attend his funeral and he is portrayed as a Christlike martyr. Meanwhile, a rookie UK prime minister maintains a defiant public stance – not giving in to the hunger strikers’ demands – but, under growing pressure from the United States and the Vatican, authorises secret communications with the leadership of the group.

This extraordinary combination of events may seem too far-fetched, even for a British version of Homeland. Yet they occurred in only a small window in the Northern Ireland conflict – from the killing of Lord Mountbatten and ambush of the army at Warrenpoint on 27 August 1979 to the ending of the hunger strike on 3 October 1981. The IRA gave Margaret Thatcher her first serious test as prime minister, before the Falklands war and the miners’ strike. And she was not without admiration for the resolve of her opponents. “You have to hand it to some of these IRA boys . . . poor devils . . . What a terrible waste of human life!” she recorded in personal notes uncovered by Charles Moore while writing his recent Thatcher biography. She added (archly?): “I don’t even remember their names.”

In the middle of the dramatic confrontation between these long-haired, young, male Irish ideologues and England’s austere “Iron Lady” – a conflict depicted in Steve McQueen’s 2008 film Hunger – it is sometimes easy to forget just how squalid and unromantic “the Troubles” were. Thankfully, Thomas Hennessey’s richly researched book about Prime Minister Thatcher’s battle with the IRA goes light on maudlin sentimentality and heavy on the evidence. Forgotten victims of the story, such as the 21 staff working in Northern Ireland prisons who were killed between 1976 and 1980, also have their place here.

Thatcher conforms neither to the IRA stereotype of the wicked colonial tyrant nor, indeed, to her self-image as an unflinching opponent of negotiations with terrorists. In July 1981, after four of the ten hunger strikers had died, she authorised a communication with the IRA leadership through an intermediary, the businessman Brendan Duddy (known to intelligence officers as “Soon” or “the Mountain Climber”).

What happened next is still an issue of great sensitivity to the leadership of Sinn Fein and the IRA. The former public relations officer for the republican prisoners, Richard O’Rawe, has accused the leadership (specifically Gerry Adams) of prolonging the strike unnecessarily in order to extract maximum political benefit – in effect, of putting “the struggle” before the lives of comrades. His central claim has been that the IRA Army Council rejected a deal from the British government which was acceptable to those on hunger strike.

The documents prove that O’Rawe is at least half right, and do nothing to prove he is wrong. The British proposal was for a statement, in which the government would offer more flexibility on prison conditions (without directly giving in to specific demands). Thatcher’s own edits were all over the draft, which was to be shown to the IRA and released only if it agreed that the terms were sufficient to end the strike.

At this critical point, when a viable deal was on the table, the IRA leadership outside the prison rejected the offer, apparently because of its “tone” rather than its substance. Thatcher and her then secretary of state for Northern Ireland, Humphrey Atkins, regarded this as the end of the matter. Those negotiating on behalf of the prisoners had calculated that it might be the start of a dialogue in which they could gain more concessions. In other words, they tried to play a game of brinkmanship, only for their channel to the government to be shut down. Six more prisoners died.

The next explosive claim that Hennessey deals with is that members of the family of one of the hunger strikers, Raymond McCreesh, urged him to continue his fast when he was considering ending it. Although the McCreesh family has repeatedly denied this claim, Hennessey reproduces accounts of prison officials who claimed that they stood listening at the door as the prisoner’s relatives surrounded his bed. They claim to have overheard members of the family, including one of his brothers, a Catholic priest, telling him that he was in a “concentration camp” and reminding him that he had made a commitment and that his comrades were staying strong.

The claims and counterclaims made about this tragic episode will go on and there is not enough in the state archives alone to put them to bed. It must be said, however, that the self-righteousness and egotism of the IRA in this period really was something to behold – a group invoking the Christian spirit of non-violent resistance and at the same time doing the lion’s share of the killing in a sectarian blood war. Ian Paisley’s attention-grabbing bellowing from the sidelines throughout, and the continued activities of loyalist paramilitaries, provide further reminder that the British state (or Thatcher), though far from perfect, was not the problem in Northern Ireland.

Having examined the state papers for the preceding and subsequent years, I do not quite agree with Hennessey’s claim that the Mountbatten murder and the Warrenpoint incident led to a “revolution” in the security approach of the British government, as many of the changes were already in place. He also slightly overstates the importance of the “supreme spook”, Sir Maurice Oldfield, who was appointed as the overall security co-ordinator for Northern Ireland in 1979. Oldfield (reputedly the model for John le Carré’s character George Smiley) was at the end of his career and mainly rubber-stamped previous decisions to give the police primary responsibility for counterterrorism operations and reduce the role of the army. Indeed, the position of security co-ordinator was deemed surplus to requirements within a couple of years.

But Hennessey is right on the funda­mental point that intelligence was to be, as Oldfield predicted, the “ultimate match-winner” in Northern Ireland. Sinn Fein used the hunger strike as the platform to establish itself as an electoral force. By that stage, however, the British intelligence services had their tentacles on, and in, the organisation. This meant Sinn Fein’s entry into electoral politics could be encouraged, but that the ideals the hunger strikers died for were never realised. It is this realisation that motivates the self-appointed inheritors of the hunger strikers’ cause, who, under the banner of the New IRA, sent seven parcel bombs to army recruitment offices across England last month.

First Published on the New Statesman blog

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  • Mc Slaggart

    “Hennessey reproduces accounts of prison officials who claimed that they stood listening at the door as the prisoner’s relatives surrounded his bed. They claim to have overheard members of the family,”

    It must have been one thin prison door.

  • SK

    So what did we learn?

    Thatcher, according to Douglas Hurd, conceded that a military victory against the IRA was impossible.

    It was the Irish ‘special relationship’ with the United States that brought the Anglo Irish agreement to fruition.

    An interesting watch

  • Dixie Elliott

    Danny Morrison interview…

    http://thepensivequill.am/2014/04/morrison-with-hand-on-heart-responds-to.html

    My reply….

    “Danny Morrison was former director of publicity for Sinn Fein…”

    Um…Right.

    This whole interview was another classic example of ‘put that gun down Danny before you shoot yourself several times in both feet…’
    In this case the gun being a microphone.

    The first half contained nothing other than people attacking, singling out, opposed to and vocal in their criticisms and denunciations of Gerry Adams and Sinn Fein.

    “Anti-peace process Danny. You forgot to use fecking anti-peace process.” I can hear Gerry shouting at his substitute from the dugout…

    Any new director of publicity for Sinn Fein should take note.

    Then Danny stumbles off into the Hunger Strikes and this is when the shooting really begins…

    He claims Richard O’Rawe wrote a book and “made allegations that there was a deal agreed between the British government and, and Sinn Féin…”

    Richard O’Rawe said nothing of the sort, he said the British made an offer to end the Hunger Strike which Bik and himself agreed contained enough to end it and sent word outside to that effect.

    “and particularly Gerry Adams ordered the prisoners to, not to accept it.” Continued Danny.

    Again Richard didn’t make that claim, he stated ‘a comm came in’ which stated, ‘that more was needed.’

    ” Whereas I was in the prison on, on a particular day in July*, 1981 and…” Said Danny,

    *That day was July 5th a Sunday.

    And he continues…

    “But the whole premise of Richard O’Rawe’s book and his allegations is that I’m bringing a deal in. Whereas no offer had yet been made.

    And in fact no offer was made until Monday night, half past eleven Monday night, thirty six hours, thirty-six hours later. But in O’Rawe’s book he has Gerry Adams ordering the prisoners not to accept this offer on Monday afternoon.”

    Thats not what Brendan Duddy said at Belfast Feile while Danny sat in the audience failing to contradict what he was saying…

    ‘In an interview with Barney Rowan at Belfast Feile Brendan Duddy said “that although a document didn’t exist the RM had the detail of an offer, theres no argument about that. And at that particular point that offer was available to go into the prison and…and whatever.

    And what was not available at that time was the document.”

    When Rowan asked him did he ‘scribble’ the offer, Duddy replied that he wrote it very carefully.

    Earlier Rowan had said to Duddy..”I think your sort of test which is to get someone into the prison on the Sunday?”

    *Note: “on the Sunday?”

    Duddy took a drink of water and pointed to Danny Morrison in the audience and replied…”Him!”

    Duddy went on to say “that the person he wanted to get in with respect to you, Mr Morrison was Gerry Adams and they said..’No way is Adams going in. Right!’”

    And [he pointed at Danny] “so do not be offended, you were second choice. So I considered a positive way forward to get Danny Morrison in and I was also totally happy that you were well aware of what was being said and what was on offer, so forth. So getting Danny Morrison in was, in my book, a major, major, step forward.”

    *Note: “you were well aware of what was being said and what was on offer, so forth.”

    AND on Talk Back:

    ‘Morrison said that he explained to them [the hunger strikers] what was on offer’, adding ‘by the way, the offer that we were being offered through the Mountain Climber was a bigger and better offer than what the ICJP thought they had.’ He went on: ‘After I had seen the hunger strikers, we all agreed that this [the M/C offer] could be a resolution, but we wanted it guaranteed.’

    This isn’t, to Quote Danny, ‘hitting you with detail and overwhelming you…’ this is hitting you with facts and your own words.

    “but we wanted it guaranteed.” Said Danny on Talk Back.

    And thats exactly what the Brits were doing on the Monday when the British were preparing the Draft Statement with Thatchers handwritten amendments.

    This draft statement is what Danny is using to claim ‘And in fact no offer was made until Monday night…’

    Again I’ll refer you to Brendan Duddy at Belfast Feile and Danny himself on Talkback in regards to the ‘offer’ which he took in on July 5th a Sunday.

    The fact is that if someone, who had the facts of the Hunger Strikes to hand, were interviewing Danny I’d say it would be a case of Danny pulling off the mike and accusing the interviewer of ambushing him.

    The rest of the interview had Danny, Gerry’s substitute, dribbling through his own defence to score a few more own goals in regards to whether the boss was or wasn’t in the IRA.

  • http://www.selfhatinggentile.blogger.com tmitch57

    “It must have been one thin prison door.”

    @McSlaggart,

    I’ve never been on the inside of the Maze, but I know that in most prisons it is common to have the front wall be merely barred so as to better observe the prisoners and maintain security. If this was the case for the Maze, then the walls were very thin indeed.

    ” I do not quite agree with Hennessey’s claim that the Mountbatten murder and the Warrenpoint incident led to a “revolution” in the security approach of the British government, as many of the changes were already in place.”

    Mick,
    In Thatcher’s memoirs she complains that she didn’t think that she got much out of the Anglo-Irish Agreement because Dublin didn’t deliver much on security and she didn’t think that the SDLP were able to deliver enough with the nationalist population. So, obviously if there was a security “revolution” or not these security changes were far from completely effective. The IRA, although not the threat that it was in the early 1970s, was still able to mount many effective operations throughout the 1980s and the early 1990s.

  • Harry Flashman

    The Mountbatten and Warrenpoint attacks didn’t cause they security revolution but they were a point when the ongoing “Ulsterisation” process, ie police primacy, could have been set back.

    Apparently the Army were very unhappy with their change in status from being the main security service to one of being back-up to the RUC. Immediately after the attacks Maggie visited Northern Ireland, at a meeting with the police and Army high command a very senior officer indulged in a piece of grisly theatre by removing the bloodstained epaulette of the Lt. Colonel killed in Warrenpoint from his pocket angrily saying that it was all that was left of one of his finest officers. The implication being that the RUC couldn’t handle what was a military situation.

    To her credit Maggie, who had a soft spot for the boys in khaki, resisted this piece of shroud waving and continued with the policy of police primacy.

    The public launch of police primacy by Ken Newman, if I am not mistaken, occurred in August 1976 (or was it 77?) when after the annual Apprentice Boys march in Derry the usual riot started. The riot kicked off with a McCourt’s meat van being hijacked and driven to Waterloo Square, immediately out from Victoria Barracks rushed a couple of RUC Land Rovers to retrieve it. There was an audible gasp of surprise at this soon to be normal scene as it was the first time the police had been deployed to handle a riot in Derry since the Battle of the Bogside. The Army just stood watching the scene with bemusement although they were still to get plenty of experience in Derry riots over the next 20 years.

  • Mainland Ulsterman

    I’ve just finished reading the Patterson book about security “co-operation”, “Ireland’s Violent Frontier’ (Palgrave Macmillan, 2013) and am also a bit puzzled by the comment that Mountbatten and Warrenpoint brought about a major change in approach. Oldfield conducted a security review, yes, but its recommendation that co-operation with the Garda should be developed and improved was described by Patterson as “wearily familiar” by that point, after years of half-arsed (my word) efforts from the Republic, mainly due to successive governments in the Republic playing to sectarian anti-British public opinion in their state.

    What the reviews did produce, says Patterson, was an increased focus on intra-NI counter-terrorist strategy, given the obvious failures on the other side of the border. But Warrenpoint et al was nothing new, just dramatic examples of the long-established pattern.

    Army / police friction remained though after this. Part of this was because Republic’s government would not let the Garda liaise with the Army on border security, insisting on them only talking to the RUC. So where the Army was patrolling in an area, they had to get messages 2nd hand from the RUC, which was absurdly impractical and cost many lives. The RUC did take up the Irish offer of better police co-ordination and sought to protect this relationship with the Garda – which caused tensions with a frustrated Army that was providing most of the security but was left out of the loop with the Irish.

  • SK

    “…mainly due to successive governments in the Republic playing to sectarian anti-British public opinion in their state.”

    The usual puerile, over-simplified, solipsism .

    Garda reluctance to cooperate with the British Army definitely nothing to do with the Army’s penchant for gunning Catholics down in the street. and then covering it up afterwards. No that couldn’t be it. The southerners were just mindless, sectarian bastards.

    Had it been the Irish Defence Forces gunning down unarmed Protestants in the Street, i’m sure the RUC wouldn’t have held it against them.

    ” only talking to the RUC. So where the Army was patrolling in an area, they had to get messages 2nd hand from the RUC, which was absurdly impractical and cost many lives. ”

    Perhaps if Saville took place twenty years earlier they might have saved a few of those lives.

  • Mc Slaggart

    tmitch57

    “in most prisons it is common to have the front wall be merely barred”

    I do have a clue what you mean. The H Block doors and walls look quite thick.

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:H-block_corridor.jpg

  • mr x

    @sk

    Wonder if the Garda would help the IRA today?

  • http://www.selfhatinggentile.blogger.com tmitch57

    @McSlaggart,

    No wonder the Brits lost control of the wings. Barred cells would have been much easier to control.

  • http://www.selfhatinggentile.blogger.com tmitch57

    @McSlaggart,

    No wonder the Brits lost control of the wings. Barred cells would have been much easier to control.

    Although I read on the book review of the book that was on Newshound’s book review section someone commented that several of Bik McFarlane’s cell neighbors heard him commenting on the offer. So maybe with the ear pressed to the wall it was possible to hear through it.

  • Mc Slaggart

    tmitch57

    “someone commented that several of Bik McFarlane’s cell neighbors heard him commenting on the offer. So maybe with the ear pressed to the wall it was possible to hear through it”

    Was Bik McFarlane such an interesting person that his neighbors would spend their day with ear pressed to the wall?

    I would have thought days spent without food would make you have a weak voice but apparently one gets a deep strong voice.

  • Scáth Shéamais

    Although I read on the book review of the book that was on Newshound’s book review section someone commented that several of Bik McFarlane’s cell neighbors heard him commenting on the offer. So maybe with the ear pressed to the wall it was possible to hear through it.

    The prisoners used the heating pipes running through the cells, and the holes in the wall used for them, as a means of communicating with each other, which was really only good for the cell directly adjacent. The other means was to scream out the door and try to be heard by the entire wing. That’s how they held political discussions, Irish language classes, storytelling sessions, etc.