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Northern Ireland 1981 archives released

By Dr Eamon Phoenix


Secret British files just released by the National Archives in Kew on the 1981 Hunger Strike reveal intensive secret contacts between Downing Street and the Provisional IRA leadership in July 1981 before the death of hunger striker, Joe McDonnell, the fifth protester to die.

image captionHumphrey Atkins was Northern Ireland Secretary in 1981

The files show that the British government were contemplating concessions on the lines which finally resolved the hunger strike but demanded that the IRA should call off the strike as a pre-condition.

They also confirm resistance to concessions from Northern Secretary Humphrey Atkins and the Thatcher government's hostility to a proposal that the present Deputy First Minister, Martin McGuinness should be allowed into the Maze to meet the hunger strikers.

On 8 July,1981, Clive Whitmore, the prime minister's private secretary, informed Stephen Boys-Smith of the NIO of intensive contacts between the two sides over the week-end of 4-6 July.

These were conducted through the medium of the Derry-based businessman Brendan Duddy, known as 'the Mountain Climber'.

The opening of this "channel" can be traced to a letter from Atkins to the prime minister on 6 July, 1981 in which he revealed that the government had been approached by "a third party who is trusted by the top Provisional leadership".

The Provisionals, Atkins said, were no longer pressing for differential treatment for 'their' prisoners but wanted a statement permitting all prisoners to wear their own clothes and concessions on work, association and remission.


Significantly, Atkins was unenthusiastic about a deal, telling Mrs Thatcher: "My judgment and that of Michael Alison (minister of state)… is that the best course is to continue to stand firm.

"There is always the chance that the strike will… collapse of itself, leaving the Provisional leadership humiliated."

One drawback of such an inflexible policy, Atkins conceded, would be "to discourage the Provisionals from switching from terrorist to political activity at the very moment when we know that they have begun to find political action attractive".

At a midnight meeting on 8 July, Atkins announced that a message approved by Mrs Thatcher had been communicated to the Provisional IRA.

According to the heavily amended draft, the British government would - subject to an immediate end to the hunger strike - issue a statement dealing with clothing, work and remission; prisoners would be allowed to wear the own clothes but on the vexed issue of work, the Prison authorities would have the final say.

Code name

The IRA's response, Atkins told the Prime Minister, indicated that "they did not regard it as satisfactory and that they wanted a good deal more. This appeared to mark the end of this development and we made this clear to the PIRA…".

The file contains a blow-by-blow account of the contacts between the British and Mr Duddy, code-named 'Soon'.

The British government subsequently agreed to a request to permit a Provisional representative into the Maze, provided he was "acceptable".

When the names of Danny Morrison, Gerry Adams and Martin McGuinness were proposed, the British said they would accept Morrison but "would on no account accept either Adams or McGuinness".

Late on 5 July, Mr Duddy rang his British contact to say the possibility of any settlement was now "seriously in doubt".

These documents show that the prospects of an early "deal" to end the hunger strike evaporated over that July weekend.

The British never actually formulated their final statement while concessions were strongly opposed by senior NIO Ministers, led by Humphrey Atkins.

This seems to contradict former H Block prisoner, Richard O'Rawe's claims in his book of a clear British offer around 5 July.


Controversial claims that the third Republican hunger striker to die, Raymond McCreesh, had sought medical intervention in his last days but was persuaded to "stay strong" by his family, are contained in confidential files on the 1981 Maze hunger strike, released today by the Public Record Office in Belfast.

The files contain allegations that a "confused" McCreesh had indicated a willingness to accept nourishment but that his family had advised that there should be no medical intervention.

McCreesh, a Provisional IRA prisoner from south Armagh, was serving 14 years for the attempted murder of soldiers.

A 'Note for the Record' dated May 18, 1981 states that on 16 May, McCreesh was on day 56 of his hunger strike and described by the prison doctors as "in a confused and disorientated state of mind".

"At about 6pm he had a conversation with the prison hospital officer and said that he would like a drink of milk," the file states.

Despite his confusion, the note continues: "McCreesh gave an affirmative answer to the question from the doctor, 'Do you want us to save your life?'."


In a statement in the file, L Nolan, a senior hospital officer at the prison, informed the governor that when Dr Emerson put this question to McCreesh, he replied "Yes" in a strong voice.

Dr Emerson then phoned the hunger striker's family.

When the McCreesh family arrived, they informed medics that "McCreesh's wish… should be respected and he should be allowed to continue his hunger strike with dignity".

In a separate statement, Paul Lennon, a prison officer, informed the governor that he was aware earlier that day that McCreesh was considering ending his hunger strike but indicated that he wished to see his family first.

Lennon alleged that he overheard the late-night conversation between the McCreesh family and the dying man since, owing to the fact that the prisoner's hearing was affected, the visitors had to speak loudly.

He recalled: "I could hear Fr McCreesh repeatedly telling his brother to be strong and to remember where he was - 'You are in Long Kesh concentration camp, being looked after by prison warders.

'In Heaven'

"'Remember O'Hara (his fellow hunger striker who later died); he is strong and on hunger strike the same number of days as you'."

According to the report, McCreesh asked about Francis Hughes (the second hunger striker to die), to which his brother (Fr McCreesh) replied: "He is in heaven with Bobby Sands."

At this stage, according to Lennon's account, the prisoner's mother said: "Now, Raymond, you are going back on your word."

McCreesh was repeatedly told to remember where he was, not to get confused and not to listen to anyone only his family.

Following the visit on 18 May, 1981, Fr Brian McCreesh telegrammed the British Prime Minister, Mrs Thatcher to implore her to intervene: "My brother Raymond McCreesh is a prisoner in HMP Maze… .

"All he has left is his pride as an Irishman and his loyalty to his fellow prisoners, living and dead.

"I beg you to respect his dignity and save him."

The Prime Minister replied to the Coalisland-based priest that, while she hoped his brother would choose to live, the concessions demanded were not in her government's gift.

In a subsequent press statement, the NIO stated that on 16 May, Raymond McCreesh had indicated his willingness to accept medical treatment while in a confused state of mind but that the family's wishes had been respected. Raymond McCreesh died on the following day, along with Patsy O'Hara, an INLA prisoner from Derry - both on the 61st day of their fast.

The McCreesh family issued a statement on Friday, refuting the allegations made in the archives.

"The McCreesh family refute again, as they did 30 years ago, the allegation that they intervened to keep their son and brother Raymond on hunger strike after he had allegedly asked for nourishment," the family said.

"The statements attributed to family members in the recently released report of a prison officer are untrue, inaccurate and falsified.

"The family have always been convinced that the situation was deliberately engineered by authorities in government and the prison service to break the hunger strike."

"Agents of the State abused the extremely vulnerable condition of a dying man for political and propaganda purposes. When their efforts failed they attempted to vilify the family."


Secret files released by the Public Record Office in Belfast highlight the crucial role played in the final ending of the seven-month long hunger strike by Catholic Primate Cardinal O Fiaich and Fr (later Monsignor) Denis Faul, the leading human rights priest.

The two men met new Secretary of State Jim Prior days before the ending of the Republican death fast.

The role of Fr Faul in persuading the hunger strikers' relatives to seek medical intervention played a key part in the winding-up of the protest while the appointment of Jim Prior to the Northern Ireland Office on 13 September, 1981 paved the way for a resolution.

Fr Faul did not think that more hunger strikers would die as he believed their families would take them off it before death.

However, he emphasised to the secretary of state the strength of feeling among the protesters.

"They were relatively isolated, were inward-looking and they had a deep sense of loyalty to each other after five years of suffering and ill-treatment, as they did to their colleagues who had died.

The atmosphere (in the Maze) was described as "oppressive and sectarian".

Victory or defeat

It was essential "to take the sting out of defeat by making concessions" on work, association and remission.

Responding, Mr Prior emphasised that he wished to see an early end to the hunger strike and would avoid any talk of victory or defeat.

He appreciated that any changes to the prison regime at the end of the hunger strike would have to be precise and clearly established so that there was no chance of misunderstanding.

The previously-secret files reveal a series of sensitive meetings between the NIO minister, Lord Gowrie, and relatives of the remaining hunger strikers in September 1981.

These confirm the proactive role played in the ending of the protest by the relatives, the SDLP leader John Hume and Lord Gowrie, a member of an Anglo-Irish family who had just arrived at Stormont as Mr Prior's deputy.

On 21 September, 1981, an NIO official, DJ Wyatt, contacted the secretary of state to say that Mr Hume had reported that Mrs McCloskey, the mother of a current hunger striker, had now made up her mind to authorise her son's resuscitation when he reached the point of death.

Mr Hume said that she would like to meet Lord Gowrie and to be accompanied by Mrs Lynch, the mother of the dead hunger striker, Kevin Lynch.


Mr Wyatt was adamant that Lord Gowrie should meet Mrs McCloskey.

The hour-long meeting took place at Stormont Castle on 23 September and the minutes record that "although (the two women) were quite tearful at the start, the meeting proceeded amicably despite the difficult and distressing circumstances".

Lord Gowrie expressed his sympathy for their "heartbreaking predicament".

Mrs McCloskey said that her son did not wish to die but could not go back and face his comrades unless he got "something".

Mrs Lynch strongly believed that "own clothing" would have solved the problem two years ago but that it was very difficult now.

Both ladies said they did not think they had any influence with the hunger strikers' 'OC'.

This was the reason they were appealing to the Minister.

This enabled Lord Gowrie to hope that the relatives should use their influence to end the strike.


This was followed by a further meeting on 28 September, 1981, between Lord Gowrie and the relatives of five of the remaining six hunger strikers at Stormont Castle, including the sisters of Pat Sheehan (now a Sinn Fein MLA).

The minister told them that the government's view was that "the decision to come off the hunger strike had to be taken by the strikers themselves, but thereafter ministers would try to be helpful".

As the meeting drew to a close, the relatives' spokesman said he had found reassurance in what the minister had said.

This meeting seems critical in the final resolution of the protest.

The hunger strike was called off five days later on 3 October, 1981, and on 6 October the secretary of state announced key changes in the prison regime.

All prisoners would in future be entitled to wear their own clothes; 50% of lost remission would be restored for conforming prisoners, and free association would be permitted within the H Blocks.

MP's murder dominated briefing

The murder of the Ulster Unionist MP Rev Robert Bradford in Belfast by the IRA dominated a security summit at Stormont Castle on Sunday, 15 November, 1981.

It was attended by the Secretary of State Mr Jim Prior, the chief constable, Sir Jack Hermon and the GOC, Lt Gen Sir Richard Lawson.

The chief constable said that the recent Anglo-Irish Summit had caused anxiety in the majority community and the demonstrations by Dr Paisley's followers had helped to stir these feelings.

In his view "the murder of Mr Bradford raised the temperature, but there was no sign of spontaneous community reaction. In terms of community strife he was very reassured".

For his part, the secretary of state said he would not be deterred in his belief that a political solution should be sought.

He was also anxious that targets for retaliatory attacks, such as the SDLP leader, Mr John Hume, should be given adequate protection.

Dr Eamon Phoenix is a political historian and co-author with Alan Parkinson of Conflicts in the North of Ireland 1900-2000.

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