Tuesday 22 October 2019

Thatcher and the hunger strikes

In the 30 years that have passed since the 1981 H-Block hunger strikes, Margaret Thatcher's status as Irish republicanism's number one hate figure has been unchallenged. According to republican mythology, the former British prime minister was personally responsible for the deaths of 10 IRA and INLA hunger strikers during that awful summer of 30 years ago.

A further twist was added to this historical grudge match when the Provisional IRA attempted to murder Mrs Thatcher and her cabinet at the 1984 Conservative Party conference in Brighton.

Now UK state papers for 1981, which have just been released under the 30-year rule, allow us to view the hunger strikes through the eyes of the British government for the first time. These papers show that the British government was prepared to offer the hunger strikers a wide range of concessions. The papers also show that details of these concessions were conveyed through well-established back-channels to the prisoners and the IRA leadership.

The 1981 state papers make it clear that, far from callously leaving the hunger strikers to starve themselves to death, Mrs Thatcher's government made serious efforts to resolve their grievances. Of course, that is not to say that the British government's handling of the hunger strikes was exemplary, far from it. However, the blunders which it did make owed far more to the intense mutual suspicion between the British government and the IRA and the incompetence displayed by both sides than to any malice on the part of the Thatcher government.

While the contents of the 1981 UK state papers contained few surprises for long-time Northern Ireland watchers, they have further reinforced the accusations made by Richard O'Rawe against the 1981 Provisional IRA leadership in his 2005 book 'Blanketmen'. In his book, Mr O'Rawe, a former H-Block inmate who was the prisoners' public relations officer during the hunger strike, claimed that the IRA leadership blocked proposals for a compromise settlement from the British government. If these proposals, which were similar to the prison reforms that were implemented after the hunger strikes eventually collapsed, had been accepted the lives of a number of hunger strikers could have been saved, claimed Mr O'Rawe.

Unfortunately it is in the nature of such historical arguments that they can never be proven definitively one way or the other. Forensically dissecting the actions of individuals and organisations more than three decades later is at best an inexact science.

However, what the newly published British state papers make clear is that the role played by Mrs Thatcher in 1981 was a far more nuanced one than that portrayed in republican mythology. In December 1985, only a little over four years after the hunger strikes, she signed the Hillsborough agreement, which set in train the series of events that would eventually bring peace to Northern Ireland and see Sinn Fein share power with the DUP.

Irish Independent

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