David Beresford hunger strike journalist and historian, RIP

The best journalists are often oddballs. They can win close access to power, regardless of whether power is of the state or anti -state variety. They   lack – and often spurn – status. They tend to walk alone and barely recognise dress codes. Perhaps their greatest quality is persistence against the odds, in which courage and ego play equal parts.   If they have to, they skirt round or quietly ignore the rules of the institutions they work for and the institutions are equally quietly grateful, underneath  the clamour of public and official pressure. One such was David Beresford of the Guardian who died yesterday in South Africa of a long  illness bravely borne. He covered both South Africa and the course of  his Parkinson’s disease with  equal originality and  distinction. I got to know him when I was  covering the hunger strike for Newsnight.

A Guardian obit captures David  well.  He was new to Northern Ireland when the first, the abortive hunger strike broke. This made his journalism all the more impressive. He was among the first to tackle the hunger strike of ten at length. His big break after the event was to win access to the sources of closely written cigarette paper or waxy toilet roll paper.  While these sources  greatly enrich the story, they make it no easier to tell  with something like objectivity. The Cain extract gives a flavour and the New York Times records the impression his book “Ten Men Dead” made on the wider world.

Mr. Beresford, as the writer Peter Maas explains in an introduction, covered the hunger strike and was haunted by the question: How could people die slowly and agonizingly for a principle?

The question apparently perplexed Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher of Britain as well. ”Will someone please tell me why they are on hunger strike?” she once asked Tomas Cardinal O Fiaich of Ireland. ”I have asked so many people. Is it to prove their virility?”

Mr. Beresford learned of the secret messages during interviews with friends and relatives of the dead hunger strikers and other sources. After lengthy negotiations, he was taken, in 1985, to an I.R.A. safe house in West Belfast. There, in an upstairs bedroom, were 16 shopping bags filled with comms. He was given 24 hours to look at them. He insisted on, and was finally given, a week. They formed the heart of what is surely the best book on the conflict in Northern Ireland to be published in this country in years.

Ed Moloney pays well-merited tribute and discloses how David spotted a stray paper in the pile made available to him by the IRA  that inadvertently revealed Mountain Climber a.k.a. Brendan Duddy, the key channel between the Provisionals and the British Government.

David had secured the co-operation of the Provo leadership while researching the book and asked for access to the prison comms (letters written on sheets of toilet paper and smuggled in and out by visitors). They agreed but Gerry Adams instructed O’Rawe, who had been PRO for the H Block protesters, to remove any and all comms which referred to the Mountain Climber.

This he did, but one escaped his sieve and so that is how the world learned about the secret channel and the efforts to negotiate a death-free ending to the prison protest. And of course that was the domino which sent a whole row of dominoes tumbling and leading us, arguably, to a very different and more controversial explanation for the second, 1981 hunger strike. By such chance is history made.

An academic project will try to present a more complete picture of the hunger strike and its significance this year, as Maggie Scull of King’s College London  explained in the Irish Times last December. David Beresford will retain an honoured place in that account even though he is no longer able to contribute to it.

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