6 January 2005 Edition

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Papers released under new Freedom of Information Act- Brits decided to let Hunger Strikers die

BY FERN LANE

Documents released under the new Freedom of Information Act, which came into force on 1 January, have revealed that in December 1975, the British Government made a decision that, in the event of a hunger strike by Republican POWs, it would let prisoners die rather than reintroduce Special Category status.

The resolution, promoted by officials within the Ministry of Defence and prison service, came after the implementation of the Gardner report earlier that year, which had recommended the ending of Special Category status and the introduction of the policy of criminalisation for all those convicted after 1 March 1976. Both MoD and prison officials, realising that there would be a response from republican POWs, demanded that the government "withstand the pressure" of dying prisoners in the event of a hunger strike. One MoD report early in 1976 stated that "the campaign will undoubtedly be conducted on one or possibly both sides at a certain level of nastiness and I do not propose that we should be unduly sensitive in our treatment of the subject".

Earlier, on 29 December 1975, the Director of Prisons in the north of Ireland, one W I David, had written a report to the MoD observing that Special Category status had been introduced after hunger strikes in 1972. "Having seen what an administrative and discipline disaster this has proved to be, we should be resolute in our intention not to weaken in our decisions for 1976," he writes. He also adds that the government should make the policy of allowing prisoners to die known to them, saying "the administration will withstand this pressure even after the death/s of prisoners".

His view was reinforced a few weeks later when an official from the NIO ('Northern Ireland' Office), J H Parkes, wrote that hunger strikes may take place in opposition to the ending of Special Category status. He suggested that prison officers refrain from force feeding prisoners, saying that "it is important to recognise that this may well result in prisoners being allowed to die; and prisoners should be made aware in good time that we are quite prepared to contemplate this".

On coming to power in 1979, Margaret Thatcher, who oversaw the deaths of ten men on hunger strike in 1981, seems to have enthusiastically adopted this view that it was better to let people die than to acknowledge their political status. What neither she, nor her officials foresaw, however, was the long term effect of the Hunger Strikes on the political landscape of the north of Ireland. They saw their policy as a means of defeating Irish republicanism; instead it helped to make Sinn Féin the potent political force it is today.

UWC's neo-fascist threat

As the loyalist Ulster Workers Council threatened and attacked workers into joining the strike aimed at bringing down the Sunningdale Agreement and power sharing assembly, a panic-stricken and "fearful" Brian Faulkner told the British Government that the situation was out of control and that the North of Ireland was in danger of becoming an "independent, neo-fascist" state.

The notes of a meeting between Stormont politicians and the British Prime Minister Harold Wilson and his Secretary of State Merlyn Rees, records that Faulkner told the government "with every hour that passed, the Secretary of State and the British Government on the one hand, and he and the Northern Ireland Executive on the other enjoyed less support and credibility, as it became increasingly evident that the administration of the country was in fact in the hands of the Ulster Workers Council".

The solution, he argued, was a rapid "assertion of authority on the ground". Negotiations, he said, were useless as "the situation is now out of the control of Mr West and Mr Paisley".

Control had passed to other and more dangerous hands. The issue was not now whether the Sunningdale Agreement would or would not survive. The outcome which the Protestant extremists sought was "without question an independent, neo-fascist Northern Ireland". Indeed the leader of Vanguard, William Craig, had said that the sectarian attack on Catholics during the strike was "unfortunate but understandable - if democracy is being trampled into the ground you have to take whatever action is needed".

The papers also show that there was extensive discussion on whether or not the British Army should be brought in to secure fuel and electricity supplies, as loyalists had always "backed away" from confrontation with British forces.

Harold Wilson was incensed by the UWC strike and in the confidential notes of a broadcast to be made on 25 May 1974, he wrote that the strike "has nothing to do with wages. It has nothing to do with jobs - except to imperil jobs. It is a deliberate and calculated attempt to use every undemocratic and unparliamentary means for the purpose of bringing down the whole constitution of Northern Ireland so as to set up there a sectarian and undemocratic state, from which one-third of the people of Northern Ireland will be excluded."

Wilson continued, making his now famous remark about loyalist and unionist "spongers".

"British taxpayers have seen have seen the taxes they have poured out almost with regard to cost — over £300 million a year this year with the cost of the army operations on top of that — going into Northern Ireland," he raged. "They see property destroyed by evil violence and are asked to pick up the bill for rebuilding it. Yet people who benefit from this now viciously defy Westminster, purporting to act as though they were an elected government, spend their lives sponging on Westminster and British democracy and then systematically assault democratic methods. Who do these people think they are?"

Of course, the irony was that for all Wilson's ranting and raving, the British Government refused to take on the UWC, preferring instead to do nothing in the hope that the Executive would collapse of its own accord. In a memo to the prime minister, Merlyn Rees acknowledges that the UWC demand for fresh elections "has nothing to do with real power sharing" and that an election "is likely to be no more than a precursor to pressure for a Protestant state for a Protestant people".

However, despite that knowledge, he continues: "While the Northern Ireland Executive remain in being, there can be no real movement. But the situation changes if they go. From our point of view the most desirable situation now is that they should go of their accord, in view of the intervention, they cannot make any plausible complaints that they have not received full support from HMG." On 28 May 1974 Brian Faulkner handed in his resignation and the power sharing experiment came to an end.

Afterwards, Wilson wrote that the British Government was in a position of "responsibility without power" and likened it to "a Eunuch". Events also made him consider the "doomsday" option of British withdrawal and international intervention. A further memo states: "The mere threat of international involvement... might so alarm the parties as to persuade them to an otherwise unthinkable compromise capable of averting international involvement altogether... Even if neither the threat nor the fact of international involvement produced any kind of settlement, HMG would at least be able to share with others the odium of failure and the blame for the ensuing chaos in Ireland."

Heath's fury over torture findings

Papers released under the Freedom of Information Act have revealed the fury of then Prime Minister Edward Heath in 1971, when he was presented with the findings of the Compton report into the torture of detainees in the Six Counties.

In a memo, taken from an incomplete file on the matter, he thundered: "It seems to me to be one of the most unbalanced, ill-judged reports I have ever read". The furious response came despite that fact that Compton had found that the treatment of prisoners including sleep deprivation, prolonged hooding, wall standing and other cruelties, did not amount to actual torture, but merely to "physical ill-treatment".

However, the fact that Compton had not given the army "a clean bill of health" was more than Heath could stand, and he vented his frustration that the report did not understand that Britain was engaged in a war against the IRA. "It is astonishing that men of such experience should have got themselves so lost in the trees, or indeed the undergrowth, that they are proved quite incapable of seeing the wood," he wrote.

And, he argued, the fact of the war justified the illegal mistreatment of those held to be republican detainees: "When you go through the report carefully, the number of incidents involved in the arrest of 300 odd men were small and, in the conditions of war against the IRA, trivial," he said.

Heath goes on to further berate the report for not setting the allegation of torture in "context" and complains that these allegations are given the same credence and "tested evidence" from the RUC and British Army. "They seem to have gone to endless lengths to show that anyone not given three-star hotel facilities suffered hardship and ill-treatment," he complains. "Again, nowhere is this set in the context of war against the IRA. What, above all, I object to... is that the unfounded allegations made for the most part by outsiders are put on exactly the same level as tested evidence from the Army and the RUC. This I believe to be intolerable."

Idi Amin's offer to mediate

During the height of the Ulster Workers' Council Strike in 1974, an offer of help came from an unexpected quarter.

Idi Amin, dictator of Uganda, wrote to the British Prime Minister Harold Wilson offering "to avail my good offices to the opposing sides in Northern Ireland". He writes that, "the political and security situation in Northern Ireland is becoming worse every passing day without any apparent feasible solution to it in sight. This serious and regrettable development calls for Britain's best and sincere friends to come to her assistance".

The British, who despised Amin as much for his pretensions to grandeur as his atrocities against his own people, would undoubtedly have baulked at being referred to as a "best and sincere" friend of the dictator and to have been offered assistance for a political problem by a colonial upstart such as him.

In the telegram, dated 28 May 1974, Amin says that as a former British colony, Uganda has the experience to help out with the conflict in the North of Ireland: "I suggest that representatives of the Catholic and Protestant communities in Northern Ireland, as well as representatives of your government come to Uganda, far away from the site of battle and antagonism, for a conference on how to bring peace to their province".

Amin then signs himself as "Al-Hajji General Idi Amin Dada, VC DSO MC President of the Republic of Uganda". The records do not show any written response from the British Government, but it seems the offer of help was turned down.

Ambassador gloated over Dublin/Monaghan bombings

After the Dublin and Monaghan bombings on 17 May 1974, in which 30 people were killed, the then British Ambassador to Ireland, Sir Arthur Galsworthy, gloated that: "I think the Irish have taken the point."

His comments are contained in newly-released British Government documents from 1974. In writing on the atrocity, Galsworth also comments archly that "It is only now that the South has experienced violence that they are reacting in the way that the North has sought for so long", but that "it would be... a psychological mistake for us to rub this point in".

Galsworthy appears to be equally pleased that "the predictable attempt by the IRA to pin the blame on the British has made no headway at all". Thirty years later, only a few still argue that British agents were not involved in the atrocity, although the official British line is that the UVF were solely responsible.

The papers have also revealed that the then British Prime Minister Harold Wilson told Taoiseach Liam Cosgrave on a number of occasions that the British were "certain" they had interned the UVF men, although the Barron investigation found that he had not passed on this information.


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