The Government had a mole inside the Maze Prison during the IRA hunger strike of 1981, former Taoiseach Dr Garret FitzGerald revealed today.
Dr FitzGerald said he was convinced a deal between the prisoners on hunger strike and the British government could have been struck to prevent the last six of 10 deaths, but that it was vetoed by the IRA leadership.
The 83-year-old former Taoiseach revealed the behind-the-scenes activity during a brief window of opportunity which could have saved the lives in an interview with the Irish News for a series the Belfast newspaper is publishing about the hunger strike.
There has been deep division within republicanism about the hunger strike since the publication of a book, 'Blanketmen', by former IRA prisoner Richard O’Rawe, in which he suggested the Sinn Féin leadership blocked a deal for political purposes.
Sinn Féin always denied the claim, but Dr FitzGerald said: “O’Rawe’s account seems to me to be, within his framework of knowledge, honest and accurate.”
The North's Sinn Féin Deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness, who has admitted having being in the IRA, also revealed for the first time that he was one of the conduits for the offer from the British government, but he disputes, said the newspaper, that there was a deal on the table acceptable to the prisoners.
He accused Sinn Féin’s opponents of trying to portray the then UK prime minister Margaret Thatcher as someone anxious to solve the hunger strike when she was what he called “a ruthless hypocritical enemy”.
Dr FitzGerald, who started the first of his two terms as Taoiseach during the hunger strike, said the IRA prisoners in the Maze were ready to accept a deal if they had been allowed to by Sinn Féin.
“They were keen to accept that. We knew that. We had our sources within the prison.”
He declined to elaborate and say whether the mole was a member of the prison staff or a prisoner.
When Dr FitzGerald came to power the Catholic Church’s Irish Justice and Peace Commission (IJPC) was working towards a possible resolution of the standoff between republicans prisoners in the Maze and the British government over the concession of ’prisoner of war’ type status.
Dr FitzGerald was briefed on the efforts by the IJPC and told the newspaper he believed at the time they would lead to a solution before the next death.
At his request the IJPC was granted a meeting with Northern Ireland Office minister Michael Allison who gave the impression he wanted to be conciliatory.
Mr Allison cleared the way for the IJPC to visit the prisoners and afterwards the inmates issued a statement which was also more conciliatory than the messages that had been issued from outside the prison by Sinn Féin.
At around the same time Sinn Féin president Gerry Adams was contacted by MI6 and a deal parallel to that of the IJPC worked out, said Dr FitzGerald.
“He was delighted the British were running to him and he did get an additional offer to the IJPC offer. It is my recollection that he got an offer (prisoner access) to the Open University which was not in the IJPC offer,” said the former Taoiseach.
Eventually the whole deal collapsed and another six men died before an end was brought to the hunger strike.
Dr FitzGerald told the newspaper that if it had been left to the IJPC a resolution could have been reached.
He said: “If the British had not intervened and brought the IRA back in again a deal could have been done.”