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Pól Ó Lorcáin
Paul Larkin

Chroniclers are privileged to enter where they list, to come and go through keyholes, to ride upon the wind, to overcome in their soarings up and down, all obstacles of distance, time and place.
Charles Dickens - Barnaby Rudge, Chapter The Ninth

The 1981 Hunger Strikes - Who will speak of the sectarian state that was “Northern Ireland”

Remarkable image of Margaret Thatcher's handwriting as she edited
what became the verbal offer sent to SF and IRA leadership on the 6th of July 1981

(Under the 30 year release rule, Britain’s national state archive at Kew has now released at least some of the documents covering the 1981 Hunger Strikes. This has provoked widespread debate here in Ireland and elsewhere. I beg the forbearance of readers in making this blog longer than usual to consider this crucial period in our history)

One thing that strikes me forcefully about the discourse surrounding the present discussion of the Hunger Strikes is that the rancour and finger pointing of a small but vociferous group of people and their “supporters” in the press is aimed exclusively at the leadership of Sinn Féin. I find that remarkable.

In 1981, Northern Irish society was in complete clampdown after the heads of the RUC had won their battle to fully Ulsterize the security campaign. Ulsterization led to the infamous RUC Shoot to Kill policy. “Firepower, Speed and Aggression” was the RUC’s new slogan; a more widespread use of Special Branch informers was introduced in liaison with Margaret Thatcher’s top spy Maurice Oldfield and at the same time stricter policies came in for Irish republican prisoners in the North, which was the whole point of building the H Blocks in which they were incarcerated. There was also, we now know, intimate state cooperation with loyalist killer gangs. Only a few weeks ago, it was admitted that one of the North’s most lethal loyalist killers had been an RUC agent/assassin all along. See -

It is easily forgotten that even speaking about pro Irish rights in the North or Britain at that time, labelled you as a subversive, a proper subject for surveillance, harassment, death threats or worse. Of course this was a war, but it was a war in an utterly sectarian society (a point now admitted by the British with their disbandment of the RUC).

My question then is - how is it that the notorious regime that was in place at that time is not being talked about? It seems clear to me that the new evidence that has emerged about the Hunger Strike period points to a sectarian establishment in the North as being the root problem and not Gerry Adams.

From reading much of the commentary, one would think that the Hunger Strikes were a private spat between a group of mad zealots and the British security forces in an otherwise civil society. That, of course, is the way the old Unionist establishment wanted the conflict portrayed.

Jack Hermon RUC - The real Secretary of a Sectarian Sate

For example, not one of the accounts of the Hunger Strikes that I have read in the last few days mentions Sir John “Jack” Hermon, head of the old RUC, who presided over the RUC primacy policy (Ulsterization) and was centrally involved, along with his heads of Special Branch, in dictating British policy in the North at that time. Put bluntly, nothing could move at that time without Jack Hermon’s say so, and the then Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, Humphrey Atkins, seems to have fully backed this policy. Or perhaps he had no choice.

How has the debate been turned upside down in this way?


I believe that these new papers give a strong indication that Sinn Féin’s version of events surrounding the Hunger Strike negotiations is the correct one – backed as it is now by the British version of events. They also destroy a story that has been pushed by our favourite spook and fantasist Ian Hurst/Martin Ingram, amongst others - viz: that Martin McGuinness was working for the British, and that Gerry Adams was working to a British agenda.

Veteran BBC journalist Peter Taylor gets very close to this crucial point when he said he was astounded that Maggie Thatcher herself was involved in the negotiations with the leadership of Sinn Féin and the IRA during the Hunger Strikes.
See here - Margaret Thatcher “negotiated with IRA”:

But the bigger point here, for Irish society at least, is that all guerilla armies have channels to the enemy and vice versa. (The US government, for example, is in dialogue with the Taliban, at one remove, at the moment.)

Much has been made of the fact that Gerry Adams and Martin McGuinness had secret channels to the British, and dark ulterior motives have been ascribed to this, whereas I would have been astounded if they hadn’t – the same goes for most IRA volunteers I have ever met.

McGuinness and Adams - the laughable myth that
they were British spies is destroyed once and for all

And what are we to make of the fact, stated clearly in these highly classified British documents, that under no circumstances would the inner sanctum of the British establishment and its intelligence services allow Gerry Adams and Martin McGuinness access to the Hunger Strikers? This is the same Gerry Adams and Martin McGuinness whom we have been repeatedly told were British spies, or acting effectively to a British agenda.

Fascinating , and top secret, transcripts of phone conversations between the link man to the IRA/Sinn Féin leadership and the British government (Derry businessman Brendan Duddy – codenamed “Soon” by the British) that took place in the first week of July 1981 say the following :
After consultation with HMG, we said that we would accept Morrison but would on no account accept either Adams or McGuinness.”

Here the British are saying that former Sinn Féin press officer Danny Morrison was an acceptable person for them to go into Long Kesh prison to speak to the Hunger Strikers and the “Officer Commanding” for IRA prisoners Bik McFarlane, but not Adams or McGuinness. Whoever it was that was saying Adams and McGuinness were British spies, it certainly wasn’t the British intelligence services themselves.

Seosamh Mac Dónaill - Joe McDonnell - The fifth hunger striker to die
as tentative backdoor negotiations reached an impasse.

Whilst they are not the full picture, the “feel” and emotion lying behind these secret documents, I believe, is that the British and the Sinn Féin leadership went some way to finding an agreement to end the Hunger Strike in the days just preceding the death of the fifth Hunger Striker Joe McDonnell on the 8th of July 1981. The sticking point came not with Sinn Féin, but with local unionist opposition to a satisfactory deal.

In other words, the possibility of an offer was in the air, and this may have been enough for some prisoners, but the verbal offer that was made by the British on Monday the 6th of July was not seen as being enough either by the Hunger Strikers or by the Sinn Féin leadership. The British themselves make that very point – see below.

Thus, an accusation that has now emerged and is being pushed by Sinn Féin’s critics, to the effect that a conclusive deal was offered by the British but was concealed by Sinn Féin leaders for their own secret motives looks to be incorrect.

In truth, and at this volatile point in our recent history, a solution to the prisons conflict was probably never going to be found, but what is now clear is that the back of Ulsterization was broken over the dead bodies of the Hunger Strikers and the huge support they received. The artificial border that had been constructed around an artificial six county Ulster (where three counties were "disappeared" to ensure a pro-British majority) was breached forever and the days of the sectarian statelet were numbered.

Máirtín Ó hUrsáin - Martin Hurson, the 6th Hunger Striker to die on July 13th 1981

When we begin to talk about people’s motives in this situation, we have to remember that a dirty war was being fought whilst the Hunger Strikes progressed and people on all sides were embattled and embittered. Sometimes, we need to step away from the cold black and white of documents and look at people’s faces, or the memory of them.

As a much younger man, I was in Belfast in the week in 1981 when Hunger Striker Martin Hurson died on July 13th of that year. I had occasion to speak at length to Sinn Féin and IRA members in West Belfast and also to watch certain republican leaders at a distance. I even met and spoke briefly (purely by accident) with Tom Hartley not long after Martin Hurson died. The reason I mention this is that I believe I am a good reader of men and what I saw in their faces that day, and in the days following, was grief, genuine grief, and the struggle to control grief.

Thus on a purely intuitive level, I do not believe that these people saw some kind of macabre greater good in allowing their comrades to die. Now I will explain in more forensic terms why I think this allegation is nonsense.


These new state papers on the Hunger Strike show that Margaret Thatcher, who was under enormous international pressure to stop the cycle of death, took an active part in trying to solve the crisis but the advice coming from the state apparatus in the North of Ireland was to “stand firm” and hopefully “humiliate” the IRA. That kind of language sounds more like a senior RUC Special Branch officer rather than the urbane Secretary of State Humphrey Atkins. This is Humphrey Atkins’ advice to Thatcher:

Monday 6th of July 1981 - Atkins to Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher
“My judgement, and that of Michael Alison who has been close to the latest moves with the ICJP, is that the best course is to continue to stand firm. There is always the chance that the strike will, in whole or in part, collapse of itself, leaving the Provisional leadership humiliated.”

Humphrey Atkins is writing this when Hunger Striker Joe McDonnell (the 5th Hunger Striker to die) is on the brink of death and his advice to Margaret Thatcher is to stand firm.

It seems to me that the advice, nay instruction, coming from the security apparatus in Belfast, and the subsequent British response to what became known as the prisoners’ Five Demands (i.e. to reject them – see below) is being ignored in certain quarters.

It also has to be said that, in the times that were in it, these papers show that the majority of prisoners (with some exceptions) were equally determined not to accept anything less than the Five Demands regarding full remission, wearing their own clothing, free association etc. Four of their comrades had already died by the time backchannel negotiations started and it is difficult to see them accepting much less than what Bobby Sands had died for.

In a letter dated 21st of July 1981, and coming from the Northern Ireland Office, a British official clearly states that the republican movement (both prisoners and IRA/Sinn Féin leadership) is at one in rejecting what the British had offered verbally on the 6th of July. In fact an official was sent in to the jail to clarify this and his proposals were rejected by the very people whom Sinn Féin’s critics say would have accepted a deal:

Letter from Northern Ireland Office to Margaret Thatcher’s office - 21st of July 1981
...we have sent an official in to clarify our position to the hunger strikers and they have said that they do not wish to listen.”

Thus, we are watching a game of brinkmanship and blinkmanship (who would blink first) worthy of any ancient Greek tragedy.

It took an academic not a journalist, and once more via the BBC, to identify the key elements emerging from these state papers. Conflict historian Dr. Eamon Phoenix’s excellent analysis can be read here:

As is indicated above, one of the most significant things highlighted by Dr. Phoenix is the fierce opposition to a deal on the part of the state apparatus in the North. However, he goes further (agreeing with the Sinn Féin position) and says that that no conclusive deal was ever offered to the Hunger Strikers via link man Brendan Duddy and the Sinn Féin leadership.

Or as Dr. Phoenix puts it himself:
The British never actually formulated their final statement while concessions were strongly opposed by senior NIO Ministers, led by Humphrey Atkins."

These new state papers, therefore, add credence to Sinn Féin's account of the desperate back-channel manoeuvring that took place over the weekend of the 4th and 5th of July 1981 as Joe McDonnell neared death . As Dr. Phoenix points out, the fact that there was no firm deal in place calls into question former IRA prisoner Richard O'Rawe's account (in his book “Blanketmen” for example) of events at this time. O’Rawe argues that the IRA/Sinn Féin leadership had a deal in their back pocket but chose not to accept it so as to prolong the Hunger Strike for electoral reasons.

A grim faced Sinn Féin PRO Danny Morrison outside Long Kesh prison

In "Blanketmen", Richard O’Rawe claims that on Sunday the 5th of July, Danny Morrison brought a message in to Long Kesh prison from the British government, a message which amounted to a ‘deal’. He also claims that Morrison then discussed this ‘deal’ with Bik McFarlane (the prisoners overall commander) who, upon his return to his cell that Sunday night, wrote down the details and passed it on to O’Rawe via a teachtaireacht – a comm. (small pieces of tissue paper that were used by the prisoners to communicate).

As Eamon Phoenix points out, the newly released state documents show that the British had categorically not drawn up their position by this time point on Sunday afternoon the 5th of July; so even if Morrison had wanted to, he could not have been in a position to bypass the hunger strikers, or give details of it to Bik McFarlane.

Going back to the phone transcripts between the link man Brendan Duddy (“Soon”) and the British government, at 2pm on that same Sunday the 5th of July the transcripts say the following:
Soon then indicated that McGuinness had arrived. He said time was of the essence and asked what the current HMG position was. We explained that it was important before drafting any document for consideration by ministers, that we should possess the Provisionals’ view. Soon then undertook to seek clear views of their position, which would be relayed to us later after discussion in the light of Morrison’s visit.”

So there we have it, it seems, from the horse’s mouth. The British would not begin considering their position on that Sunday afternoon until they had received feedback about Morrison’s visit to both the prisoners and Bik McFarlane.

I can only assume that O’Rawe, because of his anger and trauma over the death’s of his fellow prisoners has forgotten the exact train of events, or is writing what he now wishes to believe. Because in fact, a verbal offer from the British was not made until Monday the 6th of July. This offer was approved, and indeed was edited, by Margaret Thatcher, and was sent to Duddy and on to Sinn Féin later that day. This verbal offer was amended by Sinn Féin to reflect the prisoners’ perspectives of work and remission and was relayed back to the British via Duddy.

Readers can see at the top of this blog, the draft (including Margaret Thatcher’s handwritten amendments) that was drawn up so as to be read out to Brendan Duddy on the 6th of July. But we now know that the British never responded to the republican side’s request for more movement. Or to use Humphrey Atkins’ phrase, the British “stood firm”

Owen Carron - Bobby Sands' former election agent,
won the Fermanagh South Tyrone seat as an H Block candidate.

The above leads to another fundamental point where Richard O’Rawe and the anti Sinn Féin, constituency that supports him, falls down. For O’Rawe says that Gerry Adams et al cynically wanted to prolong the Hunger Strike in order to maintain the momentum of their electoral success, with Bobby Sands himself having been elected an MP before his death in May 1981 and then another Hunger Striker who died, Kieran Doherty, being elected in the South.

O’Rawe argues that Sinn Féin wanted to ensure the election of Owen Carron in the Fermanagh South Tyrone constituency and so hid details of a British deal. However, the writ for the by election in Fermanagh South Tyrone was not moved in the British Parliament until the 28th of July, some three weeks after the non existent deal was alleged to be offered, and for a polling day that would not take place until the 20th of August that year. It strains the imagination, therefore, to suppose that on the 5th of July Sinn Féin would not only know that a writ for the by election would be moved on the 28th July but that the field would be clear for Bobby Sands’ successor to be elected.

The reality is that nobody could have known what the situation would be some two months down the line. These papers clearly show that the British expected the Hunger Strike to collapse, regardless of whether the republican movement wanted to keep them going or not. Besides, O’Rawe must be well aware that at this time the IRA and Sinn Féin leadership were very committed to a military strategy. A truly dirty war was being fought and electoral successes were seen as a part of, not a replacement for, that ferocious struggle.

Ed Moloney - foremost critic of the Sinn Féin Leadership

In conclusion, some readers (my younger readers in particular), may ask why I believe these issues to be so important. My answer is that, quite apart from the historical importance of the Hunger Strikes, some of the biggest hitters in Irish journalism have picked up on Richard O’Rawe’s accusations against the Sinn Féin leadership and effectively reported his accusations as fact. For example, probably the most prominent of these journalists is Ed Moloney who, it is claimed, has written the definitive book about the IRA – “A Secret History of the IRA.” In this book, Moloney describes O’Rawe’s account of the Hunger Strike negotiations as “explosive for the Adams leadership.” Of course it can only be explosive if it is true.

O’Rawe’s, in my view, questionable account of the Hunger Strikes also fits in with Moloney's thesis that the “duplicitous” Gerry Adams sent IRA volunteers to their deaths for the sake of his electoral strategy. This is made clear in Moloney’s summary of O’Rawe’s evidence:
... the hugely damaging accusation that the peace process strategy was constructed on a foundation consisting of the graves of six republican hunger strikers who needn’t and shouldn’t have died was fated to hang forever over Gerry Adam’s head.”

Moloney does not clarify exactly how Adams has been “damaged”. For, since these allegations about Adam’s alleged “duplicity” with regard to the Hunger Strikes and other issues have been made, his electoral vote both North and South, and that of his party, has actually increased. However, Moloney’s acceptance of O’Rawe’s allegations is clear.

I also find it strange that Moloney elevates O’Rawe to some kind of lone figure seeking to represent the hunger strikers fairly against a manipulative Gerry Adams. We have already seen above that the British sent a top official into Long Kesh to address the Hunger Strikers personally and they refused to listen. Moreover, it is an established fact that all issues to do with the Hunger Strikes were discussed amongst groups of prisoners with Bik McFarlane as the link man and Richard O’Rawe being asked to write out what was agreed in these discussions. Here is what McFarlane says in the book "Nor Meekly Serve My Time" about the drafting of the prisoners’ conciliatory statement of 4th July which led to the Duddy/London telephone calls, and about which Richard O’Rawe has claimed to be the sole author:
We talked it over for a long time, with contributions from Butch Butler (subsequently a Sinn Féin MLA] and Colm Scullion, our respective cell mates. Our cell mates were separated by another, occupied by Marty McManus and Ta-Buck Bradley, and we had some interjections from them. Finally we agreed that a comprehensive explanation of the five demands should be drafted. So Richard set about the task eagerly.”

Is the above quote not a more likely scenario? It is certainly what the vast majority of ex republican prisoners say actually happened. It took more than Gerry Adams, surely, to run the Republican war, politics and propaganda machine?

I could even accept the arguments coming from the likes of Moloney and O’Rawe if they were happy to follow their own logic. Surely, accepting for a moment their position, if what Moloney calls the Gerry Adams faction was so Machiavellian and scheming in knowingly consigning people to their deaths, so too were the British. There was Thatcher and the British hierarchy screaming “No Truck With Terrorists”, as they sent British troops to their deaths, and all the while, engaging in secret talks with the IRA. Yet the finger is exclusively pointed at Gerry Adams and his supporters in West Belfast.

The naivety of the above argument in a war situation is plain for all to see and now, irony of ironies, these top secret British papers have emerged to give yet more credibility to Sinn Féin’s position.

Overall, the story that is emerging is that Sinn Féin and the IRA scored a stunning victory, not in an outright military defeat of the British, which was never going to happen in my view, but in getting rid of a society that was rotten and sectarian to the core. I believe that history will finally record that Irish Republicans (and not just in Sinn Féin and the IRA) forced the British to instruct the Unionists to accept the inevitable tide of history and share power with the Irish.

The historical import of these new papers is in showing that, with the Hunger Strikes of 1981 involving IRA and INLA prisoners, the British saw the writing on the wall. The support for the prisoners across Ireland and in the Irish diaspora was immense and, significantly the message from Bobby Sands that went out to all Irish hearts was not a blood curdling call to drive the English into the sea, or for some kind of Vietcong type "Tet Offensive" but simply -

“ Tá páirt le imirt ag achan duine - Everybody has a part to play”

Roibeárd Gearóid Ó Seachnasaigh - Bobby Sands 9 March 1954 – 5 May 1981

Imeasc laochra na nGael atá sé - A hero to huge numbers of Irish people all over the world

@Paul Larkin
Carraic, Gaoth Dobhair
Mí Eanáir, 2012


Athbhliain faoi Mhaise Daoibh agus go raibh mhaith agat, Pol,..I hope to be considered as one of the 'younger readers'; I remember very clearly the hunger strikes and the anguish and heart break..I shan't say much but do ponder at how certain people can, after so much pain, continue to scathe the names of many who gave so much. I do hope though that lessons will be learned and it is thanks to sincere, detailed research and commentary from people such as yourself, Pol, that we can learn, understand and make headway in preventing such occurances happenning again. Sadly, I amn't sure that much is being learnt considering the ongoing tension within certain Irish prisons and the 'seemingly' continued use of British abuse. Conditions within the prisons are a paramount part of the strive towards coherence in Ireland's struggle for justice, peace and unity. Hopefully the recently published documents will enable people to recognize that the powers that be are twisted when 'needed' and that true dialogue and understanding must be attained to make progress. Your article ends with beauty, and the words of Bobby Sands are some of the finest, moving and international ever; yes, we all have a role to play and yes, hopefully we can break down the lies, the fear and the foolishness to nurture a future for all. Gra Mor
by: Finn Anson (contact) - 04 Jan '12 - 18:54
Finn a chara - I totally agree that prisons are a touchstone for the values that a society holds. All prisoners should be treated with dignity and respect, particularly when there is a political dimension to their alleged crimes.
However, I also believe that there is a responsibility on people who say they are fighting for an Irish Republic not to send our young people to jail as a result of a futile and impossible armed campaign that bears no relation to the struggles and concerns that Irish people have today. Support for any worthwhile cause has to be argued for and won the hard way. The IRSP have shown the way in this regard in my view.
Guns and masks might be really exciting for some people but they are a thing of the past.
by: Pol (contact) - 04 Jan '12 - 23:08
Pol, a chara - I totally agree with the futility of an armed campaign that no longer has its place in the creation of a modern Ireland. The problem arises when the condition of prisoners 'fuels' an impotent armed struggle. Are we not, though, in the situation of 'What came first? The chicken or the egg?' A prison as we agree is a place where someone pays a debt to society but is also somewhere, ideally, where the incarcerated is helped to understand another 'way'; a coherent and fulfilling place in society. Maybe the political wing(s) of the current 'insurgents' should be working on programmes to 'rehabilitate' the people in the jails, or am I really too naive to appreciate the difficulties involved.
In any case, it is surely up to the elected state and its representatives to show an impecable attitude in all realms of their administration. I shall go off and study further; Gra mor!
by: Finn Anson (contact) - 05 Jan '12 - 15:20
Finn a chomrádaí - what should happen is that the dissident movement should announce a total cessaton of armed actions. This would give space to negotiate very quick release and remission arrangments.
Then a lot of those very committed but misguided republicans can join with the rest of us in building not only the new Ireland but the new world to replace the one that is broken.

Obscene wealth and the destruction of cultures is the problem now - the world has moved on

mo sheacht beannacht is fiche ort is do theaghlach

by: Pol (contact) - 05 Jan '12 - 20:15
So the step must be taken; a cessation of all armed activity (is there really that much?) would show all parties concerned a willingness to move forward towards positive resolution of the current 'stale-mate'. I regularly muse on a conversation we had some months back wherein you rightly highlighted an outside willingness to create Republican bickering and dissent; divide and rule once again 'on the menu'. With that in mind, how is it that committed republicans can be misguided, many having fought tirelessly for a united Ireland? What makes supposedly clear thinking people prefer a military solution? And with all the people involved in the different 'shades' of Republicanism, are they resolving grass roots community issues with sensitive solutions?
As for the changing world, the wave of obscenity and cultural destruction might just be a blessing in disguise for the anguish within the hearts of the confused; maybe it will help to forge unity once again.
Gra mor!
by: Finn Anson (contact) - 05 Jan '12 - 20:54


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Title: The 1981 Hunger Strikes - Who will speak of the sectarian state that was “Northern Ireland”
Date posted: 04 Jan '12 - 13:22
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