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2009 Apr 12 Su
Commentary (Sunday Times)

Northern Ireland: “Why Adams sticks to his Maze myth” (newly released British documents)

Document type:commentary
Document kind:Article
Venue:-
Source: Sunday Times , 12 April 2009
Journalist:Liam Clarke, Sunday Times
Editorial comments:The documents released can also be read in full on this site
Importance ranking:Major
Word count:1,308
Themes:Northern Ireland, Terrorism

Why Adams sticks to his Maze myth

Thatcher's role in the offer of IRA concessions is no longer of any real importance - but Adams’s is

Liam Clarke

Sinn Fein was quite disorganised last Sunday after this newspaper published British government documents, released under the Freedom of Information act, about the 1981 hunger strike.

The documents showed that around July 5, 1981 Margaret Thatcher made a substantial offer to the IRA leadership through a secret conduit known as Mountain Climber. The prime minister conceded that republican prisoners could wear their own clothes, and gave ground on other issues.

The offer was not made public at the time and was officially denied after it was turned down. Had it been accepted, the lives of as many as six of the 10 hunger strikers who died might have been saved. The rejected offer was similar to what did actually happen after the hunger strike ended months later.

Sinn Fein wouldn't comment on the documents before publication, and afterwards told The Irish Times “these allegations are not true. They emanate from British Military Intelligence”. Danny Morrison of the Bobby Sands Trust welcomed the release of the papers but accused me of misinterpreting them. “The British government documents, far from being incriminating, actually corroborate the account of what happened at the time by Sinn Fein [and] surviving hunger strikers,” he claimed.

Both interpretations cannot be true and, judging by the current edition of An Phoblacht, Morrison's comments are now accepted by Sinn Fein. The documents are reproduced in full in the republican newspaper, while the Sinn Fein press office’s contribution has been quietly dropped.

Denial may still be a fallback position. The only comment on the Bobby Sands Trust website in response to Morrison's interpretation reads: “Danny, it is just propaganda to drop the leadership into the ashes. Hold your heads up. We have faith in you and your words.”

The schizophrenic reaction shows how difficult this is for Sinn Fein. One of the problems was set out by the Northern Ireland Office as it explained the four years of denial, equivocation and delay in releasing these documents and why it was still withholding the most sensitive material. “Many of those involved in the original issue are still intimately involved in the ongoing political process,” it told me. “To release this information at such a sensitive time might have an adverse impact on the relationship between the British and Irish governments and consequently impact on the completion of devolution of policing and justice powers.”

The main people active in 1981 and still important to the political process are in the Sinn Fein leadership. British and Irish ministers are dead, like Charlie Haughey, or long retired, like Thatcher. Gerry Adams and Martin McGuinness are still operating at a senior level.

As a result of the peculiar circumstances of Northern Ireland, and their own consummate skills, Adams and McGuinness have survived long enough to accumulate the political baggage and the skeletons in the cupboard that only retired political leaders usually have. This is the most obvious reason why Sinn Fein and the Northern Ireland Office have a common interest in dampening disclosure. While Thatcher was in active politics, it was expedient for the British government to deny offering the IRA concessions. Now it doesn't matter to the Tories or the British government what she did, but it does to Adams, who received the messages.

For a time, British figures such as Sir John Blelloch and Sir Humphrey Atkins denied any concessions were offered. Now we have official records of discussions between Atkins and Thatcher on this issue, the denials are redundant.

Yet last week Sinn Fein relied on Blelloch’s 1980s denial to maintain its position that the Brits offered nothing worth talking about to Adams, who denies he was ever in the IRA. Since he is the party president, Sinn Fein has to back Adams even if his position makes no sense.

The blanket protest was started in 1976 after Kieran Nugent told prison officers the only way he would wear the garb of a criminal was if they nailed it to his back. The anthem of the subsequent protest, the H Block song, ran: “I'll wear no convict's uniform or meekly serve my time/that Britain might brand Ireland's fight, 800 years of crime.” The issue of prison uniform was the rallying cry of the whole protest. That is why Thatcher’s offer was so significant.

Ending the strike in July 1981 might have spoiled Sinn Fein’s chance of winning the Fermanagh/South Tyrone by-election. As it was, Owen Carron’s victory secured its entry into electoral politics and paved the way for the IRA ceasefire 13 years later. Richard O’Rawe, part of the IRA prison leadership, revealed in Blanketmen how he and Brendan “Bik” McFarlane, the IRA’s prison leader, discussed the British government offer and agreed it could end the hunger strike. McFarlane denied there was any offer, while Morrison says there was but it was not pinned down.

In the face of these contradictory attempts to rubbish his account, O’Rawe appears to be winning the argument. Gerard Hodgins, who was on hunger strike when the protest was called off, is a recent convert to his point of view. When O’Rawe first published his claims, Hodgins sprang to the republican leadership's defence. “The more I see his spurious accusations in the media, the more I am inclined to believe that he is following a political agenda through which he is happy to intensify and prolong the hurt and anguish the families of our dead friends and comrades endure,” he wrote to the press in May 2006.

Last week Hodgins courageously said he had changed his mind after weighing the evidence, including the recent papers. Describing the issue as a festering sore, he called upon both the British government and the Sinn Fein leadership to “come out with full details to set all this to rest”.

Another former hunger striker, Liam McCloskey, underwent a religious realignment of his life around the time of his 55-day fast and now repudiates violence. Like Hodgins, he went on hunger strike believing that defeat was inevitable. “I didn't think it would work but I felt a duty to the others and I knew that if I didn't go on it, someone else would have to take my place,” he said.

McCloskey believed the offer would have been enough for him if the leadership of the INLA, of which he was a member, had endorsed it. However the INLA, three of whose members died on hunger strike, was not given any say.

Danny Morrison is clear that he gave a full explanation of an offer to the hunger strikers on July 5, but Sean Flynn, an IRSP leader who went into the prison with him on the second of his two visits that day, recalls nothing of the kind. Flynn met Kevin Lynch, an INLA hunger striker and friend of McCloskey, who was to die on August 1. Flynn is quite clear that Lynch “knew nothing about the Mountain Climber or that there was going to be a deal”. Lynch died a few weeks later.

Tommy McCourt, now a community worker but then a leader of the IRSP, visited Michael Devine who died on August 20, the last hunger striker to expire. He told Devine that the hunger strike was unlikely to succeed and that if he came off it, the INLA would back him. Devine replied that to end the strike would represent complete defeat and moved the conversation on to his funeral arrangements. He was aware of no honourable way out.

The question is, were he and the last few hunger strikers in possession of all the facts when they made their decision to die? Protecting political positions is no reason to hold back information that could answer this question.