British prime minister Margaret Thatcher’s secret attempts to end the IRA hunger strikes are revealed in official documents made public for the first time today.
In public, she took an unbending stand, insisting she would not bow to the demands of republican prisoners held in the North's Maze Prison for so-called “special status”.
However files released by Britain's National Archives in Kew, west London, under the 30-year rule show how her government sent messages to the IRA leadership through a secret intermediary promising concessions if the hunger strikes were called off.
The hunger strikes of 1981 triggered one of the worst crises of the Troubles, galvanising support for the republicans and turning Thatcher into a hate figure for much of the North’s nationalist community.
The British government’s perceived intransigence drew widespread international condemnation and by the beginning of July, the pressure on the prime minister was intense.
Four hunger strikers had died, and before his death their leader, 27-year-old Bobby Sands, had secured a propaganda coup, winning an election as an MP after standing in the Fermanagh and South Tyrone by-election.
So when the remaining hunger strikers issued a statement dropping their demand to be treated as “prisoners of war”, Mrs Thatcher authorised a message to be sent setting out the concessions the government would make if the strikes were ended.
The go-between who relayed the message to the leadership of the Provisional IRA is identified in the National Archives files only by the codename “Soon”.
He has, however, been named previously as Brendan Duddy, a Derry businessman who for more than 20 years acted as a secret intermediary between the British government and the IRA through his contacts with MI6 officer Michael Oatley.
The files include a log of a series of frantic telephone calls between Soon and his MI6 contact in the days leading up to the government’s offer. In one call Soon explained the IRA’s demands.
“Immediately following the ending of the hunger strike, concessions would be required on clothes, parcels and visits. This, he said, would provide the Provisionals with a face saving way out,” the log noted.
Soon used his contacts to arrange for the leading republican, Danny Morrison, to visit the prisoners in the Maze to explain what was happening – without referring to the secret back channel.
The negotiations – which also involved Martin McGuinness – were clearly fraught.
At one point the IRA men told Soon the British were being “insincere”. Soon retorted that “unless that belief was totally dispelled, he was going on holiday”.
The log noted: “The strength of his reply had, he said, won the day.”
In the final call, timed at 1am on July 6, Soon spelt out the precise choreography that would be necessary to bring the strike to an end.
“When HMG produces such a draft proposal it is essential (last word underlined) that a copy be in the Provisionals’ hands before it is made public,” Soon told MI6.
“This is to enable the Provisionals either to approve it or to point out any difficulties before publication. If it were published without prior sight and agreement they would have to disapprove it.”
Soon added the situation would be “irreparably damaged” if another hunger striker died and urged the government to “act with the utmost haste”.
In London, ministers and officials prepared their response, setting out the concessions the government was to offer “if, but only if, it would lead to the immediate end of the hunger strike”.
They included allowing the prisoners to wear their own clothes, rather than prison uniform, and to receive normal visits, parcels and letters as well as “further developments” on prison work and remission.
Mrs Thatcher clearly took a close interest in the process. The draft message in the files includes a series of detailed amendments, apparently in her handwriting.
The message ended: “If the reply we receive is unsatisfactory and there is subsequently any public reference to this exchange we shall deny that it took place. Silence will be taken as an unsatisfactory reply.”
Despite the careful build-up and the apparent concession to the key IRA demands, the approach was rebuffed. The following day, a fifth hunger striker, Joe McDonnell, died.
Northern Ireland secretary Humphrey Atkins informed Mrs Thatcher: “Following the sending of the message which you approved last night, we have received, as you will know, an unsatisfactory response. That particular channel of activity is therefore now no longer active.”
Nevertheless, the government then made a second attempt to break the deadlock. Mr Atkins’ office told No 10 they had used Soon to repeat “what was in essence the message sent on July 7”.
“Although the channel was very free with his own advice, he had nothing acceptable to say about the attitude of the Provisionals and at about 1900 hours on July 20 the Secretary of State gave us instructions that the channel should be closed,” the note said.
The hunger strikes were to carry on for another three months, during which five more prisoners died.
Despite their outward determination, the files show just how anxious ministers were. On July 2, Mrs Thatcher grimly told the cabinet they should consider “all possible courses of action in regard to Northern Ireland, however difficult or unpalatable”.
With “increasingly disturbing signs of an erosion of international confidence in British policy”, ministers even discussed the hitherto unthinkable for a Conservative government – British withdrawal.
But while there was “a widespread feeling in favour of British withdrawal” among the public, they admitted pulling out would not be an “easy proposition” with “civil war and massive bloodshed” likely to be the immediate outcome.
The meeting also discussed intravenously force feeding the hunger strikers, although ministers again acknowledged there would be difficulties.
“If intravenous feeding led to all the protesting prisoners coming out on hunger strike the authorities would be faced with the enormous task of sustaining them by such methods indefinitely,” the minutes noted.