THE UK Government engaged in secret talks with IRA leaders in a failed bid to end the 1981 hunger strikes at Maze prison, newly-released documents have shown.
The hunger strikes at the Northern Ireland jail triggered one of the worst crises of the Troubles, galvanising support for the republicans and turning Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher into a hate figure for the nationalist community.
Her Government’s perceived intransigence drew international condemnation, and by the beginning of July 1981 the pressure on her was intense. Four hunger strikers had died, including their leader, 27-year-old Bobby Sands.
In public, Lady Thatcher continued to insist she would not bow to the demands of prisoners.
However, files released by the National Archives today show her Government sent messages to IRA leaders through a secret intermediary, promising concessions if the hunger strikes were called off.
When the remaining hunger strikers issued a statement dropping their demand to be treated as “prisoners of war”, Lady Thatcher authorised a message to be sent setting out the concessions the Government would make if the strikes were ended.
The files include a log of a series of frantic telephone calls between the go-between – nicknamed “Soon” – and his MI6 contact in the days leading up to the Government’s offer.
At one point the IRA men told Soon they believed the British were being “insincere”.
Soon retorted that “unless that belief was totally dispelled, he was going on holiday”. The log noted that “the strength of this reply had, he said, won the day.”
In the final call to MI6, timed at 1am on July 6, Soon explained it was essential that a copy of the offer be in the Provisionals’ hands “before it is made public.”
Soon added the situation would be “irreparably damaged” if another hunger striker died and urged the Government to “act with the utmost haste”.
In London, Ministers and officials prepared their response, setting out the concessions the Government was to offer “if, but only if, it would lead to the immediate end of the hunger strike”.
They included allowing the prisoners to wear their own clothes, rather than prison uniform, and to receive normal visits, parcels and letters as well as “further developments” on prison work and remission.
Lady Thatcher took a close interest in the process. The draft message in the files includes a series of detailed amendments, apparently in her handwriting.
The message ended: “If the reply we receive is unsatisfactory and there is subsequently any public reference to this exchange, we shall deny that it took place.”
Despite the careful negotiations and the apparent concessions to key IRA demands, the approach was ultimately rebuffed. The following day a fifth hunger striker, Joe McDonnell, died.
In the event, the hunger strikes were to carry on for another three months, during which time five more Irish prisoners died.