29.9.09

Laurence McKeown: Unionists in NIO scuppered deal

THE HUNGER STRIKE Was there a deal?

Irish News
28/09/09

Laurence McKeown is a former IRA prisoner who took part in the Hunger Strike. He joined the fast on June 29 1981 after the first four prisoners died. Following the deaths of six more hunger strikers his family authorised medical intervention to save his life on September 6, the 70th day of his hunger strike...

WHEN Richard O’Rawe first made the claim that the British had been prepared to reach a deal during the 1981 Hunger Strike but that it was rejected by the leadership of the republican movement, I believed the claim to be totally unfounded.

I still believe that.

In the intervening period it has been disproved by documentation from the period and by a broad spectrum of individuals involved at the time.

Nevertheless, the controversy has rumbled on, fuelled by an assortment of disaffected former members of the republican movement and political opponents of Sinn Fein.

The ‘debate’ has therefore more to do with contemporary political machinations and allegiances than it has to do with the Hunger Strike.

Trying to ‘answer’ the claim is a bit like trying to convince an alcoholic that they’d be much better off not taking that next drink.

There will never be an answer that will suffice, a response that will be adequate.

So why bother?

For the families of the six who died later that summer and for the thousands of ordinary people who did so much for us during that period.

The Tory government of Maggie Thatcher is infamous for the trail of suffering, death, social upheaval, destruction of communities, and removal of civil and workers’ rights that it wreaked not just in Ireland but in Britain itself.

But let’s just suppose for a moment that it wanted to end the Hunger Strike.

Britain acts only in Britain’s interest so if it was decided that it was in their best interest to concede some or all of our demands it would not have been out of some humanitarian sentiment but because not to do so would be damaging to Britain’s long-term interests.

So, this Tory cabinet of Maggie Thatcher, having decided that it was in Britain’s best interest to act to break the Hunger Strike, comes up with a list of concessions they are prepared to make, presents this to the leadership of the republican movement, who supposedly reject them and what do the Brits do?

They walk away with their tails between their legs.

Is this the same government that cold-bloodedly slaughtered the Argentinean sailors on the Belgrano?

That smashed the powerful National Union of Mine Workers and left whole mining villages and communities desolate?

If the British had thought it was in their interest to end the Hunger Strike then they would have done so regardless of what the republican movement did or did not do.

They would simply have gone to the media – having first confided with and secured the support of the SDLP, the Catholic hierarchy and the Dublin government – and announced concessions they were prepared to make.

We on hunger strike would then have been faced with either calling it off or trying to continue with a now deeply divided support base, not to mention internal and family divisions.

It’s not rocket science.

So why did the Brits not do that? If indeed they ever had any real intention of doing it.

A BBC Timewatch programme produced in 1994, a full 11 years before Richard O’Rawe’s claim, possibly holds the answer.

I did an interview for the programme and the producers got access to many senior British government officials from the time.

In casual conversation with the producer I asked if the civil servants, particularly in the Northern Ireland Office (NIO), had felt a bit like ‘piggy-in-the-middle’, forced to hold to Thatcher’s uncompromising line while having to deal with adverse publicity from around the world.

The producer replied that everything they had discovered indicated that Thatcher at one point was going to make concessions but that when the Northern Ireland Office (NIO) got wind of it top civil servants, including the governor of the prison, Stanley Hilditch, threatened to resign.

As soon as he said it I realised it made absolute sense. Of course the civil servants in the NIO (unionists) would be more opposed to any concessions to republican prisoners than the British would.

It was personal for them. They lived here. They ran the place. They were the ones who formulated policies and how they were implemented on the ground including the criminalisation and Ulsterisation policies.

Stanley Hilditch had actually cut short a holiday at Christmas 1980 to return to the prison and personally handle the aftermath of the first hunger strike.

So, the producer of the programme added, threatened with rebellion on their doorstep it appears the British government decided it best to weather the storm (of the Hunger Strike) rather than follow through with their ‘offer’.

That was his version of events. What we know for definite is that during the Hunger Strike there were always offers from the British but never a deal.

And given that four comrades had already died and the hunger strike of 1980 had ended with not the merest crumb of concession there was no way we were ending ours without a concrete, copper-fastened deal witnessed by guarantors who could stand over it.

And anyone who was on it or involved with it, including Richard, knows that to be the case. Such was our suspicion and distrust of the British.

In the peace and tranquillity of 2009 it’s easy to forget that. To de-contextualise events. To forget the power of the emotions then and the strength of convictions.

It’s also easy to wish it could somehow have been different. What is unforgiveable though is to attempt to make cheap political gain from those events and in the course of it to cause hurt.

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