July 1981

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Uncovering the Truth About the 1981 Hunger Strike

British ‘had no intention of resolving the hunger strike’

British ‘had no intention of resolving the hunger strike’
Brian Rowan reports
Belfast Telegraph, Thursday, 4 June 2009

The IRA jail leader during the 1981 hunger strike today said the British Government never had any intention of resolving the notorious prison dispute in which 10 men starved to death.

Brendan ‘Bic’ McFarlane accused the then Thatcher Government of trying to resolve the prison protest “on their terms” while attempting to “wreck” the IRA in the process.

McFarlane, speaking in an exclusive interview for the Belfast Telegraph, again dismissed claims that he accepted an offer secretly communicated by the British that summer, but was overruled by the Army Council on the outside.

The suggestion first emerged in the controversial book Blanketmen — written by former prisoner Richard O’Rawe, who was part of the IRA jail leadership in 1981.

A British offer on the prisoners’ demands was communicated in the summer of that year through a secret contact channel which was codenamed Mountain Climber.

And, on Sunday, July 5, the senior republican Danny Morrison was allowed into the Maze to separately brief McFarlane and the hunger strikers.

“Something was going down,” McFarlane said.

“And I said to Richard (O’Rawe) this is amazing, this is a huge opportunity and I feel there’s a potential here (in the Mountain Climber process) to end this.”

But he said he also made clear that more was needed — that the British had to “expand the offer, and they need to go into the prison hospital”.

McFarlane said this was key — that the Government detail its offer directly to the hunger strikers.

“They (the hunger strikers) were at pains to say the Brits need to come forward,” he said.

“They need to expand on it (the offer),” he continued, “and stand over it and it needed to be underwritten in whatever shape, form or fashion the British chose to do that. It needed to be confirmed,” he said.

McFarlane said at the time this had also been made clear to the Irish Commission for Justice and Peace.

“They (the Commission) went directly to the British and urged them to send someone in,” McFarlane continued.

“The British indicated clearly that they were sending someone in and it didn’t happen.

Looking back at the events of 1981, McFarlane said: “It seems very clear that they didn’t have an intention to resolve it to an acceptable degree — that we felt was acceptable.

“They were going to resolve it on their terms and wreck us in the process,” he said.

My crucial discussion with the Maze strikers

When Brendan McFarlane met Danny Morrison in the jail that Sunday afternoon in July 1981, four hunger strikers were dead and another Joe McDonnell “was in an appalling state”.

The jail leader knew that Morrison’s presence meant something was happening.

For months — since the first hunger strike of 1980 — he had been banned from the jail, and, now, on a Sunday when there were no visits the prison gates had opened for him.

The man from the outside was allowed in to explain the Mountain Climber contacts and the offer the British had communicated.

And the fact that the British were in contact — albeit through a conduit now known to be the Derry businessman Brendan Duddy — was progress.

After meeting Morrison, McFarlane met the hunger strikers.

“We went through it step by step,” he said. “The hunger strikers themselves said: OK the Brits are prepared to do business — possibly, but what is detailed, or what has been outlined here isn’t enough to conclude the hunger strike.

“And they said to me, what do I think?

“And I said I concur with your analysis — fair enough — but you need to make your minds up,” he continued.

The hunger strikers, according to both McFarlane and Morrison wanted the British to send someone into the prison.

McFarlane continued: “Something had to be written down. Something had to be produced to the hunger strikers, even to the extent that the Brits were saying, there it is, nothing more, take it or leave it, and that’s the way the lads wanted clarity on this.

“We were never given a piece of paper,” he added.

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McFarlane: Key Dates

1951 – born Belfast.

1968 – left Belfast to train as a priest.

1970 – left seminary in Wales and later joined IRA.

1976 – life sentence for gun and bomb attack on Bayardo Bar in Belfast (August 1975, five killed).

1981 – IRA jail leader during hunger strike. Ten men died (7 IRA, 3 INLA).

1983 – he escaped from the Maze in IRA breakout.

1986 – re-arrested in Amsterdam, extradited and returned to Maze Prison.

1998 – release papers signed January 5.

Now – Sinn Fein party activist based in north Belfast

Sourced from the Belfast Telegraph

A fresh glimpse into the untold story of the hunger strike

A fresh glimpse into the untold story of the hunger strike
The hunger strike still divides opinion after almost 30 years. Brian Rowan believes a conference in Londonderry on Saturday may hold some of the answers
Wednesday, 20 May 2009

The source who spoke to the Belfast Telegraph has considerable knowledge of the Mountain Climber initiative in the summer of 1981 — an initiative linked to the republican hunger strike.

It was a secret contact channel between the Government and the republican leadership through which a verbal and private offer on the prisoners’ demands was communicated.

The source does not talk about a deal back then, but describes a situation that is “dramatically complex” and says whether there could have been a deal “becomes an opinion ? how you interpret it”.

The answers that some are looking for do not exist, he told me.

“There is no new knowledge — no new facts. (David) Beresford in (the hunger strike book) Ten Men Dead wrote where it was at. Nothing was ever communicated on paper to the IRA.”

The source describes the period as the Thatcher era — long before the British and the IRA began to think and talk about peace.

“Thatcher wasn’t thinking about the Good Friday Agreement. Thatcher was thinking about hammering them (the IRA).”

And he has another observation — “a lack of experience (on the republican side) in terms of how a Government worked”.

The prisoners’ demand back in 1981 for the Government to send someone into the jail to explain A, B, C, D and E in terms of their offer represented, in the source’s opinion, “a complete non-understanding of Government”.

“A representative of the NIO going in to negotiate with McFarlane (the IRA jail leader Brendan McFarlane) — not on,” the source said.

There are those who think that Brendan Duddy may be able to help with some of the answers, and this Saturday he will speak in a hunger strike debate in his home city of Derry.

He was the key link in the Mountain Climber chain and he believes the continuing row over the hunger strike is being fought outside all the emotion and the complexities and the doubts of 1981.

Duddy is on the record saying he spent every hour of every day trying to save the lives of the hunger strikers.

One of his daughters, Shauna Duddy, described to me seeing her father, shoulders slumped, a cup of tea in his hand, looking out the window with “tears running down his neck”.

This, in one house, is just one of the memories of that period.

You have to understand the bigger picture to understand Duddy.

He is a lifelong pacifist who wanted the deaths within the prison to stop and the killings outside the prison to stop.

His mission — even back then — was to develop a peace process and achieve a dialogue between the British and Irish.

During the Mountain Climber initiative Duddy was speaking to a representative of the British Government.

Some believe it was the MI6 officer Michael Oatley, but my understanding is it was not.

So what was Duddy’s role in 1981? Was it to make a deal?

He will tell you that was a decision for others — “people at the coalface” — British and republican, the same republicans who felt conned at the end of the first hunger strike in 1980 and feared “they were going to be conned again”. Duddy believes this played into their thinking in the summer of the following year.

And he agrees with those, including a former woman prisoner in Armagh Jail who recently wrote to a Belfast newspaper to highlight the difference between an offer and a deal.

“Sile Darragh got it spot on,” he said.

Ten men died in the prison battle. Could things have been different? Almost 30 years on the argument continues.

“The real question is should they (the republican leadership) have settled,” the Mountain Climber source said. It’s a matter of opinion.

“Were people at death’s door (the hunger strikers) capable of making a judgment?”

Almost three decades later the story of the hunger strike has not faded. It is still being debated and argued and fought over by some who were part of it and others who were not.

Sourced from the Belfast Telegraph

Eamon McCann – “Richard isn’t a liar. He told the truth in his book.” (2008)

Will IRA ever admit truth over hunger strike?

Eamon McCann, Belfast Telegraph,
Thursday, 27 March 2008

New light has been shed on reported republican reaction to a British offer which might have ended the 1981 hunger strike after four deaths. Ten men were to die before the strike ended.

Evidence which has now become available helps clarify a dispute sparked three years ago by the assertion of former IRA prisoner Richard O’Rawe that terms for ending the strike, accepted by the prisoners’ leadership in the Maze/Long Kesh, were rejected by IRA commanders outside. The implication is that the lives of six of the hunger strikers might have been saved if the prisoners hadn’t been overruled.
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SPRING 2013: 55 HOURS
A day-by-day account of the events of early July, 1981.


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