Hunger for Knowledge

Sally Hayden asks whether recent revelations about the 1981 hunger strikes warrant a new investigation into what really happened.

Six years ago I was unlucky enough to get caught in the Dublin riots, a backlash to the scheduled Love Ulster march. At the time I also volunteered in Oxfam. Every Friday at four o’clock a friendly young man would come in and donate part of his paycheque to the charity. The 25th February 2006 saw this same man in the midst of the fighting, throwing bricks and smashing windows. I realised then how deeply anger can lie, and how utterly it can engulf one.

2011 may have brought us the Queen, donned in emerald and proving genuinely adorable all around, but its closing days also brought new revelations about the historical relationship between Ireland and our nearest neighbours.

On the 1st March 1981 using a scrap of toilet paper as his manuscript, Bobby Sands wrote; “I am standing on the threshold of another trembling world. May God have mercy on my soul.” Sixty-six days later he died, causing a surge in IRA activity and an escalation of extremist attitudes and violence on both sides. He was only the first of the hunger strikers to succumb to starvation. Ten political prisoners ultimately lost their lives.

The strikes were a reaction to the loss of political status for paramilitary prisoners in Northern Ireland, abolished during the policy of “criminalisation” by the British Government in 1976. This meant that the republicans were treated like normal convicts, having to wear uniforms and do prison work, among other differences. Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher later stood by this decision, stating that to grant them special status would be “tantamount to saying that they had a licence to kill for political reasons”.

Secret British files just released by the National Archives in Kew dealing with the 1981 hunger strikes reveal that secret discussions between Downing Street and the Provisional IRA leadership occurred during the weekend before the death of Joe McDonnell, the fifth protestor to die. The documents contain details of eight phone calls between an MI6 officer and a Mr Brendan Duddy, and suggest that the Thatcher government were willing to make concessions provided the strike was called off first.

This is notable because of Thatcher’s insistence that she would not negotiate with the republicans, tied to the denial to recognise them as political actors. The projected hard-line British position was for a myriad of reasons, including worries about angering Unionists, controlling international opinion, and fuelling more press. “Better to let them fade into obscurity”, said one Conservative MP, John Farr, but due to the staggered nature of the strikes and deaths this was becoming increasingly impossible.

International attention, both sympathetic and critical, was turning on Northern Ireland and the Thatcher government’s way of dealing with the situation. The Hong Kong Standard said it was “sad that successive British governments have failed to end the last of Europe’s religious wars”. In Oslo demonstrators threw a balloon filled with tomato sauce at the visiting Queen Elizabeth. Iran sent an ambassador to Sand’s funeral.

Among the refused proposals coming from the IRA prisoners was that senior republican Martin McGuinness be allowed in to visit them. However the documents show that the more extreme yet “unpalatable” idea of complete withdrawal from Northern Ireland was considered by the British government.

That the Prime Minister was directly involved in talks is now certain. One statement sent to the IRA was altered in her own hand. The alleged concessions are not unlike those that were ultimately accepted months later when consultations with the strikers’ families led to the hunger strike being called off on October 3rd, seven months after it had begun.

The aftermath of the peace process led to bitter debates on where blame lay at specific times during the Troubles. Accusations that the strike was deliberately prolonged by the IRA leadership and that the prisoners were not in complete control of their fates have been made, and possibly substantiated to an extent. Others say that the British were attempting to stop the strikes by controlling who the hunger strikers were permitted to see, the suggestion of which was also evidenced by a released letter from Humphrey Atkins, the Secretary of State for the North.

Could things have been done differently? Probably. Are we mature enough to deal with what may emerge from an investigation? I don’t know. With conflicts like the Troubles idealistic intentions precede evil actions on both sides, and few emerge innocent. Though anger remains dormant in many, the Queen’s visit was noticeable for the tolerance displayed, and a willingness on both sides to begin the long process of moving on. If blame cannot be determined, we must not dwell on the idea of finding it. Let us not forget to learn from the past. But let us also remember that the past can’t be changed like the future can.

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