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.”
“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,
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.
Fitzgerald ‘pleaded with Reagan’ over hunger striker
While it was early in the leaderships of both Mr Reagan and British prime minister Mrs Thatcher, the pair would go on to be considered political soulmates during the West’s cold war tensions with the Soviets.
The letter, dated July 1981, was drafted after six Long Kesh prisoners had already died and the Irish government was on tenterhooks over the imminent death of Kieran Doherty, who had been elected TD for Cavan Monaghan.
Admitting he hesitated about imposing on the US president – who had survived an assassination attempt only a few months previously – Mr FitzGerald said it was his duty to seek the co-operation of “the leader of the greatest democracy on earth”.
“I would ask you to use your enormous influence with the British Prime Minister within the next twenty four hours in the interest of averting a death which would inevitably increase support for the terrorists and further undermine the stability of our democracy in a dangerous way and can only harm the interests of the British, Irish and American governments,” he wrote.
“I believe that an expression of your concern to Mrs Thatcher of the deterioration in the state of opinion among Americans of Irish extraction and among many other Americans and of the urgent necessity to avert the consequences which would result from Mr Doherty’s death could be of decisive importance.”
Mr FitzGerald said Ireland was facing a desperate crisis in the fight against support for terrorism, which he said was at an all-time high, particularly from America.
The then taoiseach evoked the help of past US presidents in speaking out against “misguided Americans” who backed IRA violence.
Their actions were decisive in saving many lives, he wrote.
If democracy was to be defended, there needed to be a turn in the tide, the Fine Gael leader insisted.
“The political stability of our own democracy is under serious threat and good relations between Ireland and the United Kingdom, so essential to solve the tragic problem of Northern Ireland and to fight terrorism, are endangered,” he wrote.
Mr FitzGerald said the British government was “understandably concerned” not to make concessions to IRA inmates which would give them a privileged status or cede control of the prisons.
But he warned that public confidence in the ability of the British to deal with the crisis “declined drastically” after failed attempts by the Catholic Church-established Irish Commission for Justice and Peace to forge an agreement between both sides.
The taoiseach said the imminently-expected death of Mr Doherty would have a more destabilising effect than any other hunger striker “for obvious political reasons”.
He believed the essence of a solution was already found through the commission’s mediation, which he said had resulted in conciliatory statements from prisoners to which the British must urgently respond.
Around the same time, the taoiseach also appealed directly to then West German chancellor Helmut Schmidt, describing the hunger strikes as the best propaganda weapon the IRA ever had.
Mr FitzGerald wrote that he “would be most grateful if you could consider using your good offices with Prime Minister Thatcher” to pressure the British into accepting the understanding mediated by the Irish Commission for Justice and Peace before the death of Mr Doherty and “its very dangerous consequences”.
State files also show that some weeks later US senator Ted Kennedy and 17 colleagues wrote to Mr Reagan, seeking a meeting about the impact of the hunger strikes.
They said the protest was “damaging relations among Great Britain, Ireland and the United States”.
Mr Doherty died on August 2, on the 73rd day of his hunger strike, aged 25.
Taoiseach promises action in the New Year to help struggling mortgage holders
Taoiseach Enda Kenny said action will be taken early in 2012.
“(Finance Minister) Michael Noonan has been given authorisation to set up his implementation plan on mortgages,” he said.
Minister Noonan will implement the recommendations of the Keane report on mortgage arrears, published in October, while the Government will introduce the Personal Insolvency Bill in early
January, Mr Kenny said.
Also to follow are a Land Conveyancing Bill as well as the implementation of other recommendations that have arisen from Dáil and Cabinet discussions, he said.
“The Minister for Finance will drive that now,” the Taoiseach said.
“Personnel have been appointed from Environment, from Social Protection and from Justice, who will devote their attention exclusively to implementing the findings of (the Keane report) and the recommendations of Government.
“One of those (recommendations) was to honour the increased mortgage relief for those who bought between 2004 and 2008.”
RTÉ accused over Stardust tragedy, records reveal
A senior adviser to Charles Haughey accused RTÉ of undermining the Stardust Tribunal by airing an in-depth report into the tragedy, State papers have revealed.
Two days after the Valentine’s night disaster in the Artane dance hall, the ‘Today Tonight’ programme planned to analyse the events – much to the disgust of a civil servant in the taoiseach’s office.
In a hand-written memo to the Secretary to the Government on the morning the programme was going out, the adviser claimed that on face value it was inappropriate for RTÉ’s current affairs division to make the show.
‘Today Tonight’ was reviewing what happened on the night 48 people died and the grounds for a tribunal.
“I do not know whether anything can be done to stop this programme or, indeed, whether the Taoiseach would wish that there should be any interference with RTÉ’s direction in the matter,” the civil servant wrote.
“On the face of it, it seems to be quite inappropriate for RTÉ to be undermining an inquiry in a matter that is to be the subject of a formal investigation pursuant
to a Government decision.”
A photocopy of television listings for February 16, 1981 showing the ‘Today Tonight’ programme on RTÉ was included in files on the Stardust inquiry
Despite the concerns, the civil servants’ fears were ultimately not acted on.
“This programme was mentioned by the minister to the Taoiseach this morning. I don’t think that anything can be done about it,” another official wrote back.
The ‘Today Tonight’ programme was billed as an analysis of the issues around Stardust. It said it would look at what questions need to be asked, where the responsibility lies and why the fire happened.
- Margaret Thatcher secretly advised to abandon Liverpool by advisers (telegraph.co.uk)
- Northern Ireland – BBC News (bbc.co.uk)
- Thatcher cabinet ‘wobbled’ over IRA hunger strikers (guardian.co.uk)
- Just like 1981: History repeats itself (independent.co.uk)