July 1981

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Uncovering the Truth About the 1981 Hunger Strike

Timeline: 29 June – 4 July 1981

UPDATED 11 July 2009 – Excerpts from Biting at the Grave added

Merged Timeline – Joe McDonnell’s death

Please note this timeline is by no means definitive and is subject to revision as more sources are added and/or more evidence and information comes to light. This timeline is a verbatim compilation of various sources in a chronological order and is open to interpretation.

Sources: Danny Morrison, Garret Fitzgerald, British Government documents, Ten Men Dead, Before the Dawn, Biting at the Grave, INLA Deadly Divisions, Blanketmen, Irish News, Belfast Telegraph, eyewitness accounts.

KEY:

DM = Danny Morrison

GF = Garret Fitzgerald

Other sources are noted in text.

29 June

DM: 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 strike.

DM: Joe McDonnell is on day 52 without food. 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’”.

30 June

GF: “The IRA reaction, allegedly on behalf of the prisoners, had been to describe this response as ‘arrogant’. Nevertheless the Commission for Justice and Peace saw the British statement as encouraging – as did we – and sought further clarification. Our information from the prison was that, despite the IRA statement purporting to speak for them, the prisoners wanted the commission to continue its involvement. We were also aware that the relatives of the prisoners on hunger strike were becoming increasingly restive at the IRA’s intransigent approach.”

1 July

GF: “On 1 July Michael O’Leary and I communicated our view on these points to the British Ambassador and urged that the NIO meet the commission again and allow the commission to meet the prisoners. We also warned against any policy of brinkmanship, which – especially in the view of the nearness to death of one hunger striker, Joe McDonnell – could harden attitudes, including in particular the attitudes of the relatives, who had the power to influence developments. That night I rang Margaret Thatcher to make these points directly to her.”

3 July

DM: Irish Commission for Justice and Peace [ICJP] has eight-hour meeting with Michael Alison, prisons minister.

GF: Garret Fitzgerald meets with relatives of the prisoners/hunger strikers:

“This meeting on 3 July was, as I had expected, intensely distressing, but it enabled me to see for myself that while there were those among them who took a straight IRA line, most of them were indeed primarily concerned to end the hunger strike.”

4 July

DM: ICJP again meets Alison who gives its representatives permission to meet the eight hunger strikers in 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 that they are ‘hopeful’ but that prisoners deeply distrust the authorities.

DM: British government representative (codenamed ‘Mountain Climber’) secretly contacts republican leadership by ‘back channel’. Insists on strict confidentiality.

GF: “The Minister of State at the NIO, Michael Allison, met the commission again. He gave the impression that he wanted to be more conciliatory, but referred to ‘the lady behind the veil’, namely the Prime Minister. As we had proposed, he cleared a visit by the Commission for Justice and Peace to the prisoners, who then issued a statement that, as we had thought likely, was much more conciliatory than the one published by the IRA on their behalf three days earlier. They said they were not looking for any special privileges as against other prisoners, and that the British government could meet their requirements without any sacrifice of principle. It looked as if the commission would now be able to resolve the dispute with Michael Allison, who seemed close to accepting their proposals.”

GF: “Following the conciliatory statement by the prisoners, direct contact had been made with the IRA by an agent of the British government, through an intermediary. Disastrously, his proposals, while close to what the prisoners and Allison, through the commission, were near to agreeing, went further in one respect. Not unnaturally the IRA preferred this somewhat wider offer, and above all the opportunity to be directly involved in discussions with the British government.”

Padraig O’Malley, Biting at the Grave, pg 90-92: “Both sides met again on 4 July for what the Commission members felt was a pro-forma exercise. Within minutes of the meeting’s beginning, however, Alison did a complete about-face. If the hunger strikes were to end, he told the Commission, the government would not appear to be acting under duress, in which case all prisoners would be allowed to wear their own clothes. Own clothing as a right, not a privilege, Hugh Logue asked. Own clothing as a right, Alison replied.”

“After the meeting with Alison the Commission was given permission to go immediately to the Maze/Long Kesh prison. When they arrived, they were brought to the hospital wing […] The eight hunger strikers sat on one side of a table on which jugs of water had been placed; the five commissioners sat opposite them.”

“For the next two hours the two sides went over the proposals the Commission had hammered out with Alison and which it now thought were on offer. Prisoners would be allowed to wear their own clothes at all times as a matter of right, not privilege; association would be improved by allowing movement by all prisoners during daily exercise time between the yard blocks of every two adjacent wings within each block and between the recreation rooms of the two adjacent wings in each block during the daily recreational period; the definition of work would be expanded to ensure every prisoner the widest choice of activities – for example, prisoners with levels of expertise in crafts of the arts could teach these skills to other prisoners as part of their work schedules, prisoners would be allowed to perform work for a range of charitable or voluntary bodies, and such work could even include the building of a church “or equivalent facilities for religious worship within the prison”.”

Next: 5 July 1981

Sourced from:
Danny Morrison, Timeline: 2006 & 2009
Garret Fitzgerald, Excerpt from autobiography, All in a Life, 1991, pages 367-371
Freedom of Information documents, Sunday Times website
Gerry Adams, Excerpt from autobiograpy, Before the Dawn, 1996, page 299
Padraig O’Malley, Biting at the Grave, 1990, page 90-98
Jack Holland & Henry McDonald, INLA, Deadly Divisions, 1994, page 179
Richard O’Rawe, Blanketmen, 2005, page 284
David Beresford, comms from Ten Men Dead
Brian Rowan, interview with Brendan “Bik” McFarlane, 4 June, 2009
Steven McCaffrey, Irish News, Former comrades’ war of words over hunger strike, 12 March 2005

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