The Conservative government of the 1980s rejected a proposal from an influential backbencher to put paramilitary inmates on a prison ship during the height of the hunger strikes and dispose of their bodies at sea if they died on board, official records have revealed.
The suggestion was made by former Home Secretary David Waddington before he joined the Cabinet. He said a vessel fitted with cells could be made very secure and naval recruits may gain practical training.
"The boat could cruise for long periods of time, calling at various ports around Britain for supplies and a change of staff and could anchor for long periods off-shore," he said. "Any of the terrorists who passed away could be buried at sea, removing the publicity which these people appear to seek."
Mr Waddington (now Baron Waddington), now aged 83, was an MP for Clitheroe in Lancashire during the hunger strikes. He served in the House of Commons from 1968 to 1990 and was then made a life peer. He rose to Home Secretary in 1989, shortly before his elevation to the Lords.
His suggestion was rejected by Northern Ireland Office prisons minister Michael Alison, the former Conservative MP for Selby, who said the ship would cost more to run, need more staff and be less secure.
He observed ships wear out quickly and require regular dry docking and major maintenance. Alternative accommodation would have to be provided for prisoners while the floating jail was in dry dock.
"The major objection to the proposal must be that an individual sentenced to a period of imprisonment remains a human being with certain statutory rights and privileges," the Conservative said. Mr Alison concluded the measure could only be justified as a temporary expedient in an emergency and was not a long-term solution.
The deaths of the hunger strikers were marked by street protests in Northern Ireland and condemnation from abroad.
Lords peer Baron Hylton suggested requiring those who died to be buried in prison with only a clergyman and a limited number of close relatives present. Mr Alison also rejected that proposal.
"I have no doubt that we would be pilloried as a stony-hearted Government who had not only failed to prevent a man from starving himself to death but had then coldly refused to release his body to his nearest and dearest outside," said the minister.