Fight or flight: a British soldier stands guard near a republican mural in Belfast, 1982. (Photo: Hulton Archive/Getty)
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The lady was for turning: Margaret Thatcher’s Battle With the IRA by Thomas Hennessy

The extraordinary sequence of events now seems too far-fetched even for a British version of Homeland.

Hunger Strike: Margaret Thatcher’s Battle With the IRA (1980-1981)
Thomas Hennessy
Irish Academic Press, 488pp, £19.99

 

A senior member of the royal family is blown up on his yacht together with his 14-year-old grandson, another teenager and an elderly lady. Hours later, 18 soldiers are killed by two roadside bombs in an ambush on British soil. The following year, prisoners belonging to the terrorist organisation responsible begin the first of two hunger strikes, in which ten of them will die.

Riding on a wave of religion-infused nationalism, one of the strikers is elected as an MP as he starves himself to death. When his organs finally fail, an estimated 100,000 people attend his funeral and he is portrayed as a Christlike martyr. Meanwhile, a rookie UK prime minister maintains a defiant public stance – not giving in to the hunger strikers’ demands – but, under growing pressure from the United States and the Vatican, authorises secret communications with the leadership of the group.

This extraordinary combination of events may seem too far-fetched, even for a British version of Homeland. Yet they occurred in only a small window in the Northern Ireland conflict – from the killing of Lord Mountbatten and ambush of the army at Warrenpoint on 27 August 1979 to the ending of the hunger strike on 3 October 1981. The IRA gave Margaret Thatcher her first serious test as prime minister, before the Falklands war and the miners’ strike. And she was not without admiration for the resolve of her opponents. “You have to hand it to some of these IRA boys . . . poor devils . . . What a terrible waste of human life!” she recorded in personal notes uncovered by Charles Moore while writing his recent Thatcher biography. She added (archly?): “I don’t even remember their names.”

In the middle of the dramatic confrontation between these long-haired, young, male Irish ideologues and England’s austere “Iron Lady” – a conflict depicted in Steve McQueen’s 2008 film Hunger – it is sometimes easy to forget just how squalid and unromantic “the Troubles” were. Thankfully, Thomas Hennessey’s richly researched book about Prime Minister Thatcher’s battle with the IRA goes light on maudlin sentimentality and heavy on the evidence. Forgotten victims of the story, such as the 21 staff working in Northern Ireland prisons who were killed between 1976 and 1980, also have their place here.

Thatcher conforms neither to the IRA stereotype of the wicked colonial tyrant nor, indeed, to her self-image as an unflinching opponent of negotiations with terrorists. In July 1981, after four of the ten hunger strikers had died, she authorised a communication with the IRA leadership through an intermediary, the businessman Brendan Duddy (known to intelligence officers as “Soon” or “the Mountain Climber”).

What happened next is still an issue of great sensitivity to the leadership of Sinn Fein and the IRA. The former public relations officer for the republican prisoners, Richard O’Rawe, has accused the leadership (specifically Gerry Adams) of prolonging the strike unnecessarily in order to extract maximum political benefit – in effect, of putting “the struggle” before the lives of comrades. His central claim has been that the IRA Army Council rejected a deal from the British government which was acceptable to those on hunger strike.

The documents prove that O’Rawe is at least half right, and do nothing to prove he is wrong. The British proposal was for a statement, in which the government would offer more flexibility on prison conditions (without directly giving in to specific demands). Thatcher’s own edits were all over the draft, which was to be shown to the IRA and released only if it agreed that the terms were sufficient to end the strike.

At this critical point, when a viable deal was on the table, the IRA leadership outside the prison rejected the offer, apparently because of its “tone” rather than its substance. Thatcher and her then secretary of state for Northern Ireland, Humphrey Atkins, regarded this as the end of the matter. Those negotiating on behalf of the prisoners had calculated that it might be the start of a dialogue in which they could gain more concessions. In other words, they tried to play a game of brinkmanship, only for their channel to the government to be shut down. Six more prisoners died.

The next explosive claim that Hennessey deals with is that members of the family of one of the hunger strikers, Raymond McCreesh, urged him to continue his fast when he was considering ending it. Although the McCreesh family has repeatedly denied this claim, Hennessey reproduces accounts of prison officials who claimed that they stood listening at the door as the prisoner’s relatives surrounded his bed. They claim to have overheard members of the family, including one of his brothers, a Catholic priest, telling him that he was in a “concentration camp” and reminding him that he had made a commitment and that his comrades were staying strong.

The claims and counterclaims made about this tragic episode will go on and there is not enough in the state archives alone to put them to bed. It must be said, however, that the self-righteousness and egotism of the IRA in this period really was something to behold – a group invoking the Christian spirit of non-violent resistance and at the same time doing the lion’s share of the killing in a sectarian blood war. Ian Paisley’s attention-grabbing bellowing from the sidelines throughout, and the continued activities of loyalist paramilitaries, provide further reminder that the British state (or Thatcher), though far from perfect, was not the problem in Northern Ireland.

Having examined the state papers for the preceding and subsequent years, I do not quite agree with Hennessey’s claim that the Mountbatten murder and the Warrenpoint incident led to a “revolution” in the security approach of the British government, as many of the changes were already in place. He also slightly overstates the importance of the “supreme spook”, Sir Maurice Oldfield, who was appointed as the overall security co-ordinator for Northern Ireland in 1979. Oldfield (reputedly the model for John le Carré’s character George Smiley) was at the end of his career and mainly rubber-stamped previous decisions to give the police primary responsibility for counterterrorism operations and reduce the role of the army. Indeed, the position of security co-ordinator was deemed surplus to requirements within a couple of years.

But Hennessey is right on the funda­mental point that intelligence was to be, as Oldfield predicted, the “ultimate match-winner” in Northern Ireland. Sinn Fein used the hunger strike as the platform to establish itself as an electoral force. By that stage, however, the British intelligence services had their tentacles on, and in, the organisation. This meant Sinn Fein’s entry into electoral politics could be encouraged, but that the ideals the hunger strikers died for were never realised. It is this realisation that motivates the self-appointed inheritors of the hunger strikers’ cause, who, under the banner of the New IRA, sent seven parcel bombs to army recruitment offices across England last month.

John Bew is an award-winning historian and a contributing writer for the New Statesman

John Bew is a New Statesman contributing writer. His most recent book, Realpolitik: A History, is published by Oxford University Press.

This article first appeared in the 12 March 2014 issue of the New Statesman, 4 years of austerity

Photo: Getty
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Rising crime and fewer police show the most damaging impacts of austerity

We need to protect those who protect us.

Today’s revelation that police-recorded crime has risen by 10 per cent across England and Wales shows one of the most damaging impacts of austerity. Behind the cold figures are countless stories of personal misery; 723 homicides, 466,018 crimes with violence resulting in injury, and 205,869 domestic burglaries to take just a few examples.

It is crucial that politicians of all parties seek to address this rising level of violence and offer solutions to halt the increase in violent crime. I challenge any Tory to defend the idea that their constituents are best served by a continued squeeze on police budgets, when the number of officers is already at the lowest level for more than 30 years.

This week saw the launch Chris Bryant's Protect The Protectors Private Member’s Bill, which aims to secure greater protections for emergency service workers. It carries on where my attempts in the last parliament left off, and could not come at a more important time. Cuts to the number of police officers on our streets have not only left our communities less safe, but officers themselves are now more vulnerable as well.

As an MP I work closely with the local neighbourhood policing teams in my constituency of Halifax. There is some outstanding work going on to address the underlying causes of crime, to tackle antisocial behaviour, and to build trust and engagement across communities. I am always amazed that neighbourhood police officers seem to know the name of every kid in their patch. However cuts to West Yorkshire Police, which have totalled more than £160m since 2010, have meant that the number of neighbourhood officers in my district has been cut by half in the last year, as the budget squeeze continues and more resources are drawn into counter-terrorism and other specialisms .

Overall, West Yorkshire Police have seen a loss of around 1,200 officers. West Yorkshire Police Federation chairman Nick Smart is clear about the result: "To say it’s had no effect on frontline policing is just a nonsense.” Yet for years the Conservatives have argued just this, with the Prime Minister recently telling MPs that crime was at a record low, and ministers frequently arguing that the changing nature of crime means that the number of officers is a poor measure of police effectiveness. These figures today completely debunk that myth.

Constituents are also increasingly coming to me with concerns that crimes are not investigated once they are reported. Where the police simply do not have the resources to follow-up and attend or investigate crimes, communities lose faith and the criminals grow in confidence.

A frequently overlooked part of this discussion is that the demands on police have increased hugely, often in some unexpected ways. A clear example of this is that cuts in our mental health services have resulted in police officers having to deal with mental health issues in the custody suite. While on shift with the police last year, I saw how an average night included a series of people detained under the Mental Health Act. Due to a lack of specialist beds, vulnerable patients were held in a police cell, or even in the back of a police car, for their own safety. We should all be concerned that the police are becoming a catch-all for the state’s failures.

While the politically charged campaign to restore police numbers is ongoing, Protect The Protectors is seeking to build cross-party support for measures that would offer greater protections to officers immediately. In February, the Police Federation of England and Wales released the results of its latest welfare survey data which suggest that there were more than two million unarmed physical assaults on officers over a 12-month period, and a further 302,842 assaults using a deadly weapon.

This is partly due to an increase in single crewing, which sees officers sent out on their own into often hostile circumstances. Morale in the police has suffered hugely in recent years and almost every front-line officer will be able to recall a time when they were recently assaulted.

If we want to tackle this undeniable rise in violent crime, then a large part of the solution is protecting those who protect us; strengthening the law to keep them from harm where possible, restoring morale by removing the pay cap, and most importantly, increasing their numbers.

Holly Lynch is the MP for Halifax. The Protect the Protectors bill will get its second reading on the Friday 20th October. 

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