Thatcher and the hunger strikers
History Hunger Strike – Margaret Thatcher's Battle with the IRA, 1980-1981 Thomas Hennessey Irish Academic Press, €22.95 Available with free P&P on www.kennys.ie or by calling 091 709350
There are few who doubt that the Maze Hunger Strike represented a battle of wills between Margaret Thatcher and the republican movement. The republican narrative, which Hennessey seeks to correct, is of a totally inflexible and ruthless virago starving out a band of pure-minded idealists. Although Charles Moore, her most sympathetic biographer, contended that she had been prepared to do a deal with the strikers, Hennessey argues to restore her reputation for inflexibility – this time defined as consistency and adherence to principle.
Hennessey, who is Professor of Modern British and Irish History at Canterbury Christ Church University, has the advantage of access to recently declassified documents in British and Irish archives, as well as prisoners' "comms", memoirs and the invaluable papers of Brendan Duddy (wrongly identified as Mountain Climber).
While it is helpful to be presented with original sources, they are largely British sources, which may account for the North's prisons being repeatedly described as the best in Europe.
While it is not the historian's fault that paramilitaries leave few written records, inevitably the assessment of prison conditions and prisoner attitudes are those made for ministers by officials, often with their own entrenched views. In the absence of written sources, it would have helped to have included interviews with senior republicans and some surviving hunger strikers.
There are two elephants in the room, which appear only fleetingly and by allusion. The first is the attitude of prison officers, Protestants largely, containing Catholic prisoners, hardened by the dirty protest and by colleagues being murdered off duty.
The crudeness of the interpersonal exchanges, the invasive strip-searches (regarded as excessive even by Roy Mason) and the extent to which the NIO was the prisoner of the Prison Officers' Association, are all factors that are understated here.
The other elephant is the fear of Protestant reaction, encapsulated in the then Northern Ireland Secretary Humphrey Atkins's assessment that it would be more dangerous to allow the Protestant community to think there had been a deal than to allow Sands to die.
The papers show the extent to which the Catholic hierarchy was mobilised to find an end to the hunger strikes which would save face for those on strike and secure better conditions for all prisoners without granting a victory to republicans. In the end, the efforts of the prison chaplains and Father Faul's persuasion of the families to intervene when the hunger strikers became comatose were decisive in ending the protest.
Significantly, Hennessey uncovers the important new evidence that the visit of the Pope's secretary, hitherto treated as a non-event, had secured an offer from Bobby Sands to come off his fast for five days (Fr Magee had suggested three days) to allow time for a visit and discussion with a NIO official. Atkins turned this down on the grounds that the offer was conditional on the attendance of two priests as witnesses and three non-striking prisoners.
The Irish Commission for Justice and Peace are depicted as rather innocents abroad, tolerated by both sides but not told by either what was going on in the back-channel, but in the end having devised the formula which provided a fig-leaf for both.
Hennessey deals with the issue raised by Richard O'Rawe about whether an offer acceptable to the prisoners had been rejected by the outside leadership for propaganda purposes. He is quite clear that there was an offer on the table via Mountain Climber and Duddy. What is less clear is whether this was agreed by Brendan 'Bik' McFarlane and passed on.
From the consistently unyielding nature of his exhortations to the hunger strikers to maintain their fast, it is hard to see Bik as compliant. Hennessey finds no evidence of external control – rather a failure to take a decision when they might have done so.
The big question raised in this account is whether the hunger strike could have been ended after the fourth death, when the prisoners conceded that the right to wear their own civilian-style clothes should be extended to all prisoners (as it already was for women in Armagh) – thus ceding the claim to differential treatment.
This was consistently refused on the mantra which has prolonged so many industrial disputes – refusal to concede under duress. The NIO, strangely, kept insisting on the right of the prison authorities to force prisoners from loyalist and republican factions, who were murdering each other outside, to share the same prison accommodation.
Hennessey argues that there were no negotiations, only clarification, that there was no offer, while at the same time arguing that the republicans inside and outside the gaol should have been able to pick up from the hints given by Allison to ICJP and by Mountain Climber to Duddy, that there was in fact a deal on offer. The line between clarification and negotiation is often faintly drawn, but human lives should not depend on nods and winks and the interpretation of heavy breathing down a phone line.
Both sides could have ended the strike at this stage, and either might have taken the initiative. Most people will wonder why men were allowed to die while other men (and one woman) quibbled over the meaning of words and whether mercy could be interpreted as weakness.
This is an important book which ranks with Beresford and O'Malley as a significant contribution to contemporary understanding of the forces underlying the hunger strikes, the personalities involved, the nature of negotiations (and non-negotiations), the issues arising for prisoners and prison administration, and the wider impact on British and Irish politics.
Of the conflict posited in the subtitle, Hennessey concludes that Thatcher won the battle but lost the war, since Sinn Féin had achieved partnership in a power-sharing administration. Since this was no more than had been on offer at Sunningdale, he questions the need for 10 men to have died. He might have asked the same question, with the same justification, about the 2,000 or more lives lost between then and the ceasefires.
Maurice Hayes is a former Northern Ireland Ombudsman.