9 April 2009 Edition
British Government holds back documents on 1981 Hunger Strike
‘Sunday Times’ H-Blocks story backfires
AN attempt by The Sunday Times last weekend (5 April) to call into question the republican leadership’s handling of the 1981 H-Blocks Hunger Strike by publishing British Government documents released under the Freedom of Information Act has actually boomeranged on the reporter who wrote the story, Liam Clarke. [Liam Clarke, after being challenged by the Bobby Sands Trust, had to admit last month that a quote he attributed to Bobby Sands and used in a lurid headline – “Sinn Féin is turning into Sands’s dodo” – wasn’t said by Bobby Sands.]
The British Government documents themselves, far from being incriminating, actually corroborate the account of what happened at the time by Sinn Féin, surviving Hunger Strikers, O/C Brendan McFarlane, the Irish Commission for Justice and Peace and detailed research by authors David Beresford, Padraig O’Malley and Denis O’Hearn.
[See documents at end of these articles – Editor.]
Responding to Liam Clarke’s story, the secretary of the Bobby Sands Trust, Danny Morrison, who was the key contact between the prisoners and the Republican Movement during the Hunger Strike, issued the following statement:
“I welcome the release of documents by the British Government under the Freedom of Information Act, though I believe that their withholding of one or two particular documents is deliberate and mischievous.
“What is of interest is that a close reading of the documents supports not the sensationalist construction that The Sunday Times and others have put on them but what republicans have contended all along: that the British Government did not want a settlement on terms acceptable to the prisoners and that they played along with the delegation from the Irish Commission for Justice and Peace.
“It has been known for decades that the Republican Movement and the British were in contact in July 1981 during the Hunger Strike. As a result of that contact I went into the prison hospital on Sunday, July 5th, and told Joe McDonnell, Kevin Lynch, Kieran Doherty, Tom McElwee and Micky Devine, and told Brendan McFarlane, the leader of the prisoners, separately, that we were in contact and the details of what the British appeared to be offering in terms of the prisoners’ five demands.
“Because the prisoners at the end of the first Hunger Strike had experience of the British reneging on promised offers, and this reneging had led to the second Hunger Strike, the Hunger Strikers told me that they wanted a representative of the British Government to come in and stand over what was on offer. Now, what the British were offering fell short of the five demands but whether it would have been enough to end the Hunger Strike was never put to the test because the British refused to meet the Hunger Strikers and stand over their offer. So there was never a deal.
“Those people who criticise the leadership for faithfully representing and echoing the five demands of the prisoners and trying to maximise their gains, especially after four Hunger Strikers had laid down their lives, would in all likelihood be criticising the leadership if it had tried to force on the Hunger Strikers’ acceptance of just one concession or two concessions from the British.
“Among the documents still being withheld by the British are the one whose contents were delivered verbally through an intermediary on July 5th and which I delivered verbally to the Hunger Strikers and Brendan McFarlane; and the one which the British rewrote hours before Joe McDonnell died on July 8th but which neither we nor the Hunger Strikers were given. They rewrote it, according to the newly-released material, to alter its tone in response to a request, they say, by the Republican Movement. Crucially, if we accept this document then it indicates a Republican Movement anxious to settle, not prolong the Hunger Strike.
“The only reason the British could have for continuing to withhold this statement is simply to create and sustain confusion. These documents should be read alongside the timeline the Bobby Sands Trust has detailed. These documents also tally with a background interview from 1986 with a senior prison official, Sir John Blelloch, which he did not anticipate being published but which the Trust released a few weeks ago.
“In that interview Blelloch states: ‘There was absolutely no change in the Government’s position.’
“The documents in the The Sunday Times say: ‘The statement [the one still withheld] contains, except on clothing, nothing of substance which has not been said publicly... It has been made clear (as the draft itself states) that it is not a basis for negotiation.’
“This was the real position of the British Government and it is being lost among sensational claims which, unfortunately, are bound to cause pain to the families of the Hunger Strikers.”
Allegations 'false and without any substance' – Sinn Féin
SINN FÉIN said the claims in The Sunday Times were “nothing new” and have been “comprehensively refuted, both by documentary evidence and witness testimony, when they first appeared in Richard O’Rawe’s book some year ago.”
A Sinn Féin spokesperson described the allegations as “false and without any substance”, adding:
“Indeed, all of the documents, including those published in the Sunday Times, point clearly to a republican leadership seeking to find a resolution and a British side seeking a victory over the prisoners.”
The spokesperson said these include the recent discovery and publication by the Bobby Sands Trust of a previously unpublished interview with Sir John Blelloch, a member of MI5 who had been seconded to the NIO as a Deputy Secretary at the time of the 1980 and 1981 Hunger Strikes (see ‘Timeline’ on facing page and, for the full interview with Blelloch www.bobbysandstrust.com/archives/1069).
The Sinn Féin representative ended by saying:
“If people study the documentary evidence and follow the actual timeline of events then these allegations are exposed for what they are and show clearly where the truth of this matter lies.”
Francis Hughes’s family speaks out
THE family of Francis Hughes, the second Hunger Striker to die in 1981, have responded to the Sunday Times story. Speaking through Oliver Hughes, they said:
“We came through that terrible year of 1981 and all the years afterwards supported by our memory of Francis, a young Irishman of whom we remain very, very proud.
“In recent years we have read various accounts of the Hunger Strike and talk of negotiations and offers. We know who it was that took away Special Category status, who it was beat the prisoners, who it was caused the Hunger Strike and refused to do a deal which at the time would have saved lives.
“That was 28 years ago but still there are those who, for whatever reason, bring up the past in a way that puts us through more pain and distress. If they are really concerned about how this one family of a Hunger Striker feels then I would ask them to put the issue to rest.”
– Oliver Hughes
Timeline around Joe McDonnell’s death, 1981 H-Block Hunger Strike
29 June 1981
Four hunger strikers have already died: Bobby Sands on Day 66, Francis Hughes on Day 59, Raymond McCreesh and Patsy O’Hara on Day 61 of their hunger strikes.
Joe McDonnell is on Day 52 without food. NIO Secretary of State Humphrey Atkins reaffirms that political status will not be granted and that implementing changes in the areas of work, clothing and association present “great difficulty” and would only encourage the prisoners to believe that they could achieve status through “the so-called ‘five demands’”.
Irish Commission for Justice and Peace (ICJP) has eight-hour meeting with Prisons Minister Michael Alison.
ICJP again meets Alison and they meet the eight Hunger Strikers in the prison hospital. They are shocked at the condition of Joe McDonnell. Prisoners later issue statement saying British Government could settle the Hunger Strike without any departure from “principle” by extending prison reforms to the entire prison population. ICJP tells prisoners’ families they are “hopeful” but that prisoners deeply distrust the authorities.
British Government representative (codenamed ‘Mountain Climber’) secretly contacts republican leadership by ‘back channel’. Insists on strict confidentiality.
After exchanges, Mountain Climber’s offer (concessions in relation to aspects of the five demands) goes further than ICJP’s understanding of Government position. Sinn Féin’s Danny Morrison is allowed (on a Sunday) to visit Hunger Strikers in prison hospital and updates them on all developments. Separately, he meets prison O/C Brendan McFarlane and explains what Mountain Climber is offering should Hunger Strike be terminated. McFarlane meets Hunger Strikers. Morrison is allowed to phone out from the doctor’s surgery. Tells Gerry Adams that prisoners will not take anything on trust, and prisoners want offers confirmed and seek to improve them. While waiting for McFarlane to return, Morrison is ordered out of the prison by a governor, John Pepper.
ICJP visits Hunger Strikers and offer themselves as mediators. Hunger Strikers say they want NIO rep to talk directly to them. Request by Hunger Strikers to meet McFarlane with ICJP is refused by NIO. Mountain Climber is told that prisoners want any offer verified.
Gerry Adams confides in ICJP about secret contact and the difference in the offers. ICJP is stunned by disclosure. It confronts Alison and demands that a guarantor goes into the jail and confirms what is on offer. Alison checks with his superiors and states that a guarantor will go in at 9am the following morning, Tuesday 7 July. Hunger Strikers are told to expect an official from the NIO.
Republican monitors await response from Mountain Climber.
11.40am: Bishop O’Mahoney (ICJP) telephones Alison, asking where the guarantor is. Alison suggests he and the ICJP have another meeting. O’Mahoney tells him he is shocked, dismayed and amazed that the Government should be continuing with its game of brinkmanship. The bishop says: “I beg you to get someone into prison and get things started.”
12.18pm: ICJP decides to hold 1pm press conference outlining what had been agreed by the Government and explain how the British had failed to honour it.
12.55pm: NIO phones ICJP and says that an official would meet the Hunger Strikers that afternoon.
1pm: ICJP calls off its press conference.
Late afternoon: Statement from PRO, H-Blocks, Richard O’Rawe: “We are very depressed at the fact that our comrade, Joe McDonnell, is virtually on the brink of death, especially when the solution to the issue is there for the taking. The urgency of the situation dictates that the British act on our statement of July 4 now.”
4pm: NIO tells ICJP that an official will be going in but that the document was still being drafted.
5.55pm: ICJP phones Alison and expresses concern that no official has gone in.
7.15pm: ICJP phones Alison and again expresses concern.
8.50pm: NIO tells ICJP that the official will be going in shortly.
10pm: Alison tells ICJP that no one would be going in that night but would at 7.30am the next morning and claims that the delay would be to the benefit of the prisoners. Republican monitors still waiting confirmation from Mountain Climber that an NIO representative will meet the Hunger Strikers. The call does not come.
4.50am Joe McDonnell dies on the 61st day of his hunger strike.
9am: An NIO official visits each Hunger Striker in his cell and reads out a statement which says that nothing has changed since Humphrey Atkins’s policy statement of 29 June.
ICJP holds press conference and condemns British Government and NIO for failing to honour undertaking and for “clawing back” concessions.
Late afternoon: Statement from PRO, H-Blocks, Richard O’Rawe: “The British Government’s hypocrisy and their refusal to act in a responsible manner are completely to blame for the death of Joe McDonnell. The only definite response forthcoming from the British Government is the death of Joe McDonnell. This morning, Mr Atkins has issued us with yet another ambiguous and self-gratifying statement. That statement, even given its most optimistic reading, is far removed from our July 4 statement. At face value it amounts to nothing.”
ICJP leaves Belfast.
Prisons Minister Michael Alison flies to Washington, DC. He blames the breakdown on the ICJP’s “over-eagerness” and says they had misrepresented what he had said, inflating his “privately expressed sentiments” to suggest that a solution was near. Its proposals to the British Government were “wildly euphoric and wildly out of perspective”, he says. He compares talking to Hunger Strikers as like talking to hijackers: “You continued talking while you figured out a way to defeat them, while allowing them to save face.”
Late afternoon: Statement from PRO, H-Blocks, Richard O’Rawe: “The [ICJP’s] proposals were vague but even at that we did not believe they contained a just settlement. After Joe McDonnell’s death on July 8th the British Government issued their present policy statement which in substance and even given an optimistic reading was a dilution of the diluted package attained initially by the ICJP.
“It is vital also that everyone realises that the ICJP have been victims of British perfidity [sic] and that the ambiguity which accompanies all British statements is deliberate...
“The death of our comrade Joe McDonnell on July 8th, plus the Humphrey Atkins statement of the same day, and the evolution of bitter claim and counter-claim between the British and the ICJP left one thing clear – that intermediaries (and this is no slight on the ICJP), are dangerous and that only direct talks between the British and ourselves based on our 4th July statement can guarantee clarity and sincerity and thus save lives.”
In relation to a very late intervention by the Red Cross at the invitation of the British, in the same statement the PRO wrote: “They [the British] hoped to brinkmanship us in a mediating situation, hoping that we would accept a cosmetic settlement...”
He accused the British Government of having “no intention of genuinely ending the hunger strike...
“At present, the British are looking for what amounts to an absolute surrender. They are offering us nothing that amounts to an honourable solution and they have created red herrings, that is, their refusal to allow Brendan McFarlane to represent the Hunger Strikers, to cover their inflexibility...
“Lastly, we hope that it is clear that we cannot end the Hunger Strike unless justice is done and that ultimately lies in the hands of the Brits.”
Death of Tom McElwee.
Late afternoon: Statement from PRO, H-Blocks, Richard O’Rawe, attacking Humphrey Atkins:
“For a man to claim he has stated his position clearly in relation to ‘what will happen when the protest ends’, despite the fact that no one really knows what is on offer, shows the insensitivity/insanity of his position and policy.
“We suggest that he won’t outline his policy because: No 1, he hopes to about turn – at some time; and No 2, he knows he is offering so little that even moderate opinion would be insulted...
“Very much prominent in their [British] thinking is the belief that, sooner or later, we are going to pack up and give in. They have a rude awakening awaiting them.”
Bobby Sands Trust releases unpublished interview from 1986 with Sir John Blelloch, a member of MI5 who had been seconded to the NIO as a Deputy Secretary at the time of the 1980 and 1981 Hunger Strikes. It is an insight into the psyche of the British at crucial periods in the Hunger Strikes, particularly at the time of mediation attempts by others, including the ICJP. Blelloch states: “There was absolutely no change in the [British] Government’s position.”
Full interview – http://www.bobbysandstrust.com/archives/1069