A day-by-day account of the events of early July, 1981.
Using the timeline created with documents from ‘Mountain Climber’ Brendan Duddy’s diary of ‘channel’ communications, official papers from the Thatcher Foundation Archive, excerpts from former Taoiseach Garrett Fitzgerald’s autobiography, David Beresford’s Ten Men Dead, Padraig O’Malley’s book Biting at the Grave, and INLA: Deadly Divisions by Jack Holland and Henry McDonald, Danny Morrison’s published timelines, as well as first person accounts and the books of Richard O’Rawe and Gerry Adams, the fifty-five hours of secret negotiations between British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher and Gerry Adams’ emerging IRA leadership group are examined day by day.
In the run up to this period of communication, the IRA prisoners on protest issued a statement that made clear it would be acceptable to apply the demands they were seeking to all prisoners – in other words, the issue of special category status would be set aside or fudged. This broke the logjam; the impending death of hunger striker Joe McDonnell added urgency to communications seeking an end to the protest.
PART ONE: SUNDAY 5 JULY 1981
The first documentation of “the channel” communication shows reaction to IRA prisoners’ 4 July statement is immediate, as the timing of Brendan Duddy’s conversation with the British starts between 10 and 11pm late on the 4th, resumes at 2:39 in the morning and continues until 5 AM. Duddy was the channel’s middle-man facilitating the conversation between the Adams Group and Thatcher’s representatives; he is alternatively referred to as “Soon” and the “Mountain Climber.”
The Adams Group consists primarily of Gerry Adams, Danny Morrison, and Martin McGuinness, and also includes Jim Gibney, Tom Hartley, and Ted Howell.
This early morning conversation sets parameters for channel communication.
First, it is clear the Adams Group is worried about the ICJP: “a great deal of confusion has arisen in Provisional circles from the impression given by the ICJP that there is every indication of movement by HMG”. Not only are the Adams Group concerned about the ICJP being facilitated in ending the hunger strike by the British, they were caught on the hop by the release of the statement from the prisoners that broke the logjam keeping a solution from being found. It ‘had been issued independently by the prisoners in the Maze and the timing came as a surprise to Senior Provisionals outside’.
The British were informed that ‘a meeting of the Senior Provisionals had taken place on 26 June’ – presumably the Adams Group – ‘at which what they considered realistic conditions for the ending of the hunger had been discussed’, and their position was laid out:
“Immediately following the ending of the Hunger Strike, concessions would be required on own clothes, parcels and visit. This, [Duddy] said, would provide the Provisionals with a face saving way out. The remaining demands dealing with work and association could be subject to a series of discussions after the ending of the hunger strike. [Duddy] stressed that the Provisionals’ position was, in his opinion, represented by the Prisoners’ Statement. Thus, if the arrangements detailed in this statement were acceptable to HMG and immediate concessions could be made on clothing, parcels and visit, he was optimistic.”
This is extremely important. The opening position of the Adams Group led the British to believe that if concessions on clothes, parcels and visits would immediately follow the ending of the Hunger Strike, the remaining demands could be worked out in the aftermath. The British offer in response met those conditions in good faith. Later, we will see the hunger strikers holding out for the ‘Five Demands’, completely unaware that their statement of the 4th had resulted in an offer that met the bulk of their demands – and that it was being repeatedly rejected in bad faith by the Adams Group on their behalf.
Another important position communicated by the Adams Group to the British is that the ending of the first hunger strike was not an issue for them – they believed that the British were sincere. This effectively ends the lie about the British reneging on any offer made; a fiction that has been used since 2005 to justify the Adams Group rejection of Thatcher’s offers.
By mid-morning on the 5th of July, it is clearly established that the Adams Group are keeping everyone else in the Provisional Movement leadership at all levels in the dark about the communication with the British. This was not an Army Council sanctioned initiative and in fact contradicts the Green Book on a number of points.
It is also clear that the Adams Group are intent on attempting to neutralize the ICJP.
Morrison’s Visit to the Prison
The afternoon of the 5th is taken up with arrangements to send Danny Morrison into the prison to sound out the prisoners and report back with a further position for the British to work with. The British are clear that they cannot come up with a draft statement without knowing what the Adams Group’s resulting position is first.
The purpose of Morrison’s visit, therefore, was meant to give the parameters of the offer to the prisoners in order to see if they would accept it. If the Adams Group then indicated that a settlement was indeed possible, the British would draft their statement.
Morrison’s actual objective for the prison visit was not to find out what the prisoners wanted, but to make sure that the prisoners did not agree to anything the ICJP did. The ICJP were working on ending the strike, with similar proposals from the British that the hunger strikers would have accepted. They had the support of the Irish government and would have been able to stand as guarantors over any finalised deal agreed to.
Morrison did not tell the hunger strikers the details of the offer coming through the channel. He only briefed them that they were in the channel talks and warned them that the ICJP “could be settling for less than what they had the potential for achieving.”
The Adams Group also saw Morrison’s visit as a means of assessing the value of the channel. In the words of Garrett Fitzgerald, “This visit was later described by the IRA as a test of the authority of the British government representative in touch with them to bypass the NIO.”
Morrison met with Bik McFarlane separately from the hunger strikers, and did inform him of the details of the channel offer; McFarlane would have needed to know the details of the offer the Adams Group were working on in order to combat anything the ICJP were proposing. Morrison makes sure Bik knows the line to push on the hunger strikers not to accept anything from the ICJP.
Channel Discussions Ongoing
While Morrison is at the prison, the channel discussions continued. The Adams Group is fully aware that the hunger strike would have to be called off first before any settlement was implemented, and had indicated this sequence of events would be acceptable.
The Adams Group then added a caveat that before anything was set in motion, the Adams Group wanted to see the final British statement. The British wanted to know whether there was any potential to end the hunger strike based upon the offer that they believed went into the prison with Morrison; once the Adams Group gave their assessment of the prisoners’ position and if a settlement were truly on the cards, they would consider the request. (As it turns out, they were prepared to show the Adams Group the final statement before giving it to the prisoners, and prior to publication.)
Morrison’s prison visit comes to an end after he phones Gerry Adams and tells him that the “prisoners will not take anything on trust, and prisoners want offers confirmed and seek to improve them”. Presumably Adams’ response kept Morrison waiting for Bik McFarlane to return from instructing the hunger strikers to shun the ICJP. While waiting to regroup with McFarlane, he is ordered out of the prison.
Hunger Strikers and INLA Kept in the Dark – Despite NIO Attempt to Clarify
Someone at the NIO, no doubt made aware of Morrison’s visit to the prison, contacted IRSP Councillor Flynn – whose party represented the INLA hunger strikers – and instructed him to go to the prison as “there are developments”. Flynn and Seamus Ruddy met the NIO official who enabled Flynn to visit the INLA hunger strikers Kevin Lynch and Mickey Devine in the prison, after telling him that “there had been discussions between Sinn Fein and the government and that it looked like they might settle”. From what Lynch and Devine told Flynn, it was clear they were not given the details of what was on offer from the channel by Morrison.
When Flynn confronted the Provisionals about the offer it was denied that they were involved in any secret talks. This may be because of who Flynn spoke to, as the knowledge of the talks was restricted to the Adams Group. It may also be, given the description in Holland & McDonald’s book, if it was someone in the Adams Group Flynn spoke to, the answer was Jesuitical – a denial they were “engaged in any secret talks with the NIO”. That much was true; they were in talks with Thatcher directly.
Offer Accepted by Prisoners
McFarlane returns to his cell, and informs the PRO, Richard O’Rawe, of the offer from the channel. It is a fairly comprehensive offer. He later described it as “a huge opportunity” and believed “there [was] a potential here to end this.” O’Rawe and McFarlane agreed the offer was acceptable; McFarlane indicated that he would send a comm letting the leadership know. Crucially, this conversation has been confirmed by other prisoners on the wing who overheard it.
The Army Council – Or Adams Alone?
A further crucial point is that at the time, the prisoners – McFarlane, O’Rawe, and the general IRA population, believed that their comms were going to the IRA Army Council – that replies from the Adams Group were directives from the Army Council. The prisoners were under the impression that the channel talks were conducted with the full knowledge of the full council and according to the Green Book. It may be that McFarlane understood the restricted nature of the channel talks and the directives coming in from the Adams Group but it is certain the rest of the prisoners, including the hunger strikers, did not know this, and viewed comms and directives from Gerry Adams as having the imprimatur of the Army Council.
The Evening of Sunday the 5th of July
Blocking the ICJP
After the departure of Danny Morrison from the prison – where the hunger strikers and Bik McFarlane had been instructed to freeze out the Irish Commission on Justice and Peace – ICJP representatives Bishop O’Mahony, Father Crilly, and Hugh Logue visited the hunger strikers. The hunger strikers followed Morrison’s instructions, and their discussion with the ICJP revolved around mediators and guarantees, and emphasised that McFarlane, and what they believed was the Army Council, the Adams Group, would have to be consulted before they agreed to anything. They insisted that they had to hear any offer from the British themselves – but the main point was that even if anything was acceptable to them, they would have to “square any settlement” with McFarlane.
Far from the hunger strikers and prisoners being in control of their destiny, and the IRA structure following their wishes, the prisoners were subjugated to the control of the Adams Group – who were using the authority of the Army Council without sanction to impose their will.
The difference between the hunger strikers’ position and that of McFarlane and the Adams Group is starkly described in Padraig O’Malley’s book, Biting at the Grave:
McFarlane was down the corridor in his bed – he had been brought into the hospital wing that evening and provided with a bed there so he could stay over and be available for consultation with the commissioners if the need arose. O’Mahony and Logue went down to talk to him. “He listened to us for about two minutes,” says Logue, “and turned around and went back to sleep and Joe McDonnell was going to be dead within thirty-six hours and I never forgave him for that. He was not in the business of trying to get a solution.”
Nevertheless, the commissioners left in a hopeful state. Before they left, Kieran Doherty spoke briefly in Gaelic to Oliver Crilly. Doherty, Crilly told Logue, had told him that if somebody came in and read the terms out to the hunger strikers, they would accept them.
The contrast between the two men’s responses shows the desperate gulf: Doherty seems to have realised the worth of the ICJP initiative. McFarlane, as a good soldier following the instructions given via Morrison’s visit, in his behaviour towards the ICJP demonstrated that he was intent on cutting them out from “the business of trying to get a solution”. The hunger strikers themselves – if only they were told the terms of what was on offer – would accept one.
Midnight Morrison Report Causes Alarm
The channel discussions resumed upon Morrison’s return from his visit to the prison, and the report he delivered was “alarming”: “the situation was now so bad the possibility of any settlement was seriously in doubt”.
The Adams Group informed the British that the prisoners were completely hostile to the ICJP. Duddy was met with anger and abuse – most likely a show designed to get the British to stop their concurrent discussions with the ICJP. Morrison must have sensed the hunger strikers were close to accepting what the ICJP were proposing, and this panicked the Adams Group. Their strategy was to tell the British that they were too upset by the “Bully Boy” tactics of the ICJP to give them their response. The British had been waiting on the response from Morrison’s visit to the prison in order to complete their draft statement. This temper tantrum by the Adams Group was nothing but a tactic to keep the British and the hunger strikers from ending their protest on the ICJP’s initiative.
To Be Continued in Part Two: Monday 6 July 1981