Very sad today to hear, courtesy of The Guardian, of the death of David Beresford, the South African-born journalist who I got to know well during the 1980 and 1981 IRA prison protests. Sadly we never crossed paths again.
The Guardian says he died at his home in Johannesburg after a lengthy illness, a reference to Parkinsons disease which he fought against bravely for the last 25 years.
David will be best remembered for his wonderfully written account of the 1981 hunger strike, Ten Men Dead which was based upon the comms, or at least some of them, between Bobby Sands, Bik MacFarlane, other prisoners, and on the outside Tom Hartley, Gerry Adams and others.
As Richard O’Rawe has written elsewhere, Beresford came upon the big story in his account by chance; that was the existence of Mountain Climber, the code name for Brendan Duddy, the Derry-based businessman who for many years had been the secret channel between the IRA and the British government (an arrangement, incidentally, organised by local RUC commander Frank Lagan, something which earned him the eternal hostility of his RUC colleagues and the British Army’s top brass).
David had secured the co-operation of the Provo leadership while researching the book and asked for access to the prison comms (letters written on sheets of toilet paper and smuggled in and out by visitors). They agreed but Gerry Adams instructed O’Rawe, who had been PRO for the H Block protesters, to remove any and all comms which referred to the Mountain Climber.
This he did, but one escaped his sieve and so that is how the world learned about the secret channel and the efforts to negotiate a death-free ending to the prison protest. And of course that was the domino which sent a whole row of dominoes tumbling and leading us, arguably, to a very different and more controversial explanation for the second, 1981 hunger strike. By such chance is history made.
David’s Ten Men Dead will be remembered not just as a stand-alone classic but for being the portal to greater truth. For a journalist there can be no better tribute.
My first encounter with Beresford also turned out to be a learning experience for me.
In the wake of the first, Brendan Hughes-led hunger strike David, who was not long in Belfast and still finding his feet, approached me to ask what I thought had happened.
I was blunt with him. The protest had failed and the document which the British had passed over to the prisoners and which Sinn Fein was claiming spelled out the prisoners’ victory was nothing of the sort. They had come nowhere near winning the five demands.
I told him that I knew that rank and file Provos who asked to see the document were being told that there was only one copy and it had been sent to Dublin, so they couldn’t see it. (What I didn’t tell him was that I took one Provo up to Stormont where I got a copy of the document. Presumably it was then widely distributed around west Belfast!)
David then went to the Sinn Fein press office where, of course, it was denied with vehemence. Who told him such rubbish, they demanded to know!? I didn’t mind that he told them it was me because I was not making a secret of my interpretation of events.
Anyway, I then got a message from the Provos via John McGuffin. I was banned from west Belfast. And the messenger boy? Joe Austin, about whom it was famously said: ‘Question – How do you know when Joe Austin is lying? Answer – When he opens his mouth.’
I ignored the ban and after a while it was presumably forgotten. But I learned some valuable, not-to-be-forgotten lessons, early in my career, about the guys who hung out in Sevastapol Street.
Thanks for that David!