Hunger Strike: Margaret Thatcher’s Battle With the IRA (1980-1981)
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