July 1981


Uncovering the Truth About the 1981 Hunger Strike

Irish News: Documents say Thatcher ‘would not risk initiative’

Documents say Thatcher ‘would not risk initiative’
By Staff Reporter

SUPPORT for Richard O’Rawe’s claim that a British government deal was on offer to the hunger strikers in July 1981 came through documents which emerged earlier this year.

The documents were obtained by The Sunday Times under a Freedom of Information request.

They include a letter from 10 Downing Street on July 8 to the Northern Ireland Office, an undated telegram, a further letter from Downing Street to the NIO on July 18, a letter from the NIO to Downing Street on July 21 and a British government document regarding the hunger strike.

The July 8 letter from Downing Street was issued during the last hours of hunger striker Joe McDonnell’s life.

In that letter details of a possible British government deal with the IRA were outlined.

“Your secretary of state said that the message which the prime minister had approved the previous evening had been communicated to the PIRA,” the letter stated.

“Their response indicated that they did not regard it as satisfactory and that they wanted a good deal more. That appeared to mark the end of this development and we had made this clear to the PIRA during the afternoon.

“This had produced a very rapid reaction which suggested that it was not the content of the message which they had objected to but only its tone.

“The question now for decision was whether we should respond on our side. He [the secretary of state] had concluded that we should communicate with the PIRA overnight a draft statement enlarging upon the message of the previous evening but in no way whatever departing from its substance. If the PIRA accepted the draft statement and ordered the hunger strikers to end their protest the statement would be issued immediately.”

The letter dated July 18 further emphasised a possible deal with the IRA. The letter provided a discussion on whether or not a government official should be sent into the prison to tell prisoners what would be on offer if they came off hunger strike.

It said: “The official would set out to the hunger strikers what would be on offer if they abandoned their protest. He would do so along the lines discussed with the prime minister last week.

“He would say that the prisoners would be allowed to wear their own clothes, as was already the case in Armagh prison, provided these clothes were approved by the prison authorities.

“He would set out the position on association; on parcels and letters; on remission and on work. On the last point he would make it clear that the prisoners would, as before, have to do the basic work necessary to keep the prison going.”

It said the official would not be empowered to negotiate.

“He would simply be making a statement about what was on offer to the hunger strikers if they abandoned the hunger strike,” it said.

The letter further said “there could be no guarantee that acting in this way would end the hunger strike”.

“However, there had been one or two indications that the hunger strikers were hoping to come off their strike,” the letter said.

But, apparently persuaded by the secretary of state, British prime minister Margaret Thatcher decided against this course of action.

The letter stated: “The prime minister decided that the dangers in taking an initiative would be so great in Northern Ireland that she was not prepared to risk them. The official who went into the prison could repeat the government’s public position but could go no further. The secretary of state agreed.”

Sourced from The Irish News

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A day-by-day account of the events of early July, 1981.

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