Fight or flight: a British soldier stands guard near a republican mural in Belfast, 1982. (Photo: Hulton Archive/Getty)
Show Hide image

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

Getty
Show Hide image

Air pollution: 5 steps to vanquishing an invisible killer

A new report looks at the economics of air pollution. 

110, 150, 520... These chilling statistics are the number of deaths attributable to particulate air pollution for the cities of Southampton, Nottingham and Birmingham in 2010 respectively. Or how about 40,000 - that is the total number of UK deaths per year that are attributable the combined effects of particulate matter (PM2.5) and Nitrogen Oxides (NOx).

This situation sucks, to say the very least. But while there are no dramatic images to stir up action, these deaths are preventable and we know their cause. Road traffic is the worst culprit. Traffic is responsible for 80 per cent of NOx on high pollution roads, with diesel engines contributing the bulk of the problem.

Now a new report by ResPublica has compiled a list of ways that city councils around the UK can help. The report argues that: “The onus is on cities to create plans that can meet the health and economic challenge within a short time-frame, and identify what they need from national government to do so.”

This is a diplomatic way of saying that current government action on the subject does not go far enough – and that cities must help prod them into gear. That includes poking holes in the government’s proposed plans for new “Clean Air Zones”.

Here are just five of the ways the report suggests letting the light in and the pollution out:

1. Clean up the draft Clean Air Zones framework

Last October, the government set out its draft plans for new Clean Air Zones in the UK’s five most polluted cities, Birmingham, Derby, Leeds, Nottingham and Southampton (excluding London - where other plans are afoot). These zones will charge “polluting” vehicles to enter and can be implemented with varying levels of intensity, with three options that include cars and one that does not.

But the report argues that there is still too much potential for polluters to play dirty with the rules. Car-charging zones must be mandatory for all cities that breach the current EU standards, the report argues (not just the suggested five). Otherwise national operators who own fleets of vehicles could simply relocate outdated buses or taxis to places where they don’t have to pay.  

Different vehicles should fall under the same rules, the report added. Otherwise, taking your car rather than the bus could suddenly seem like the cost-saving option.

2. Vouchers to vouch-safe the project’s success

The government is exploring a scrappage scheme for diesel cars, to help get the worst and oldest polluting vehicles off the road. But as the report points out, blanket scrappage could simply put a whole load of new fossil-fuel cars on the road.

Instead, ResPublica suggests using the revenue from the Clean Air Zone charges, plus hiked vehicle registration fees, to create “Pollution Reduction Vouchers”.

Low-income households with older cars, that would be liable to charging, could then use the vouchers to help secure alternative transport, buy a new and compliant car, or retrofit their existing vehicle with new technology.

3. Extend Vehicle Excise Duty

Vehicle Excise Duty is currently only tiered by how much CO2 pollution a car creates for the first year. After that it becomes a flat rate for all cars under £40,000. The report suggests changing this so that the most polluting vehicles for CO2, NOx and PM2.5 continue to pay higher rates throughout their life span.

For ClientEarth CEO James Thornton, changes to vehicle excise duty are key to moving people onto cleaner modes of transport: “We need a network of clean air zones to keep the most polluting diesel vehicles from the most polluted parts of our towns and cities and incentives such as a targeted scrappage scheme and changes to vehicle excise duty to move people onto cleaner modes of transport.”

4. Repurposed car parks

You would think city bosses would want less cars in the centre of town. But while less cars is good news for oxygen-breathers, it is bad news for city budgets reliant on parking charges. But using car parks to tap into new revenue from property development and joint ventures could help cities reverse this thinking.

5. Prioritise public awareness

Charge zones can be understandably unpopular. In 2008, a referendum in Manchester defeated the idea of congestion charging. So a big effort is needed to raise public awareness of the health crisis our roads have caused. Metro mayors should outline pollution plans in their manifestos, the report suggests. And cities can take advantage of their existing assets. For example in London there are plans to use electronics in the Underground to update travellers on the air pollution levels.

***

Change is already in the air. Southampton has used money from the Local Sustainable Travel Fund to run a successful messaging campaign. And in 2011 Nottingham City Council became the first city to implement a Workplace Parking levy – a scheme which has raised £35.3m to help extend its tram system, upgrade the station and purchase electric buses.

But many more “air necessities” are needed before we can forget about pollution’s worry and its strife.  

 

India Bourke is an environment writer and editorial assistant at the New Statesman.