How The End Of The 1981 Hunger Strike Was Reported In The Irish Times

The end of the 1981 hunger strikes in late October that year, which had resulted in ten deaths but arguably led indirectly to the peace process, was comprehensively covered by The Irish Times, a newspaper for which I then worked.

The anniversary of the end of the protest takes place later this month.

Below are three articles worthy of note which appeared around that time, two by myself as stand-in Northern Editor and one by the paper’s then political correspondent Dick Walsh. The articles were reproduced in today’s edition as part of the paper’s commemoration of the protest.

I would like to draw readers’ attention to the final paragraph of the last of the three articles – which is by myself – and place it in the context of Richard O’Rawe’s assertion that a solution to the protest was on offer before the death of the fifth hunger striker, Joe McDonnell, was accepted by the prisoners’ leaders inside the jail but ultimately rejected as a result of outside pressure from Gerry Adams and others in his leadership circle.

O’Rawe’s suspicion is that the settlement was sabotaged so that Owen Carron could stand unopposed by the SDLP in the forthcoming Fermanagh-South Tyrone by-election – caused by Bobby Sands’ death – thereby increasing both the chance that he would win and that the Sinn Fein grassroots would be more amenable to accepting an electoral strategy. If the hunger strike had ended before the by-election, the SDLP would almost certainly have stood a candidate and split the Nationalist vote.

I interviewed Gerry Adams in the SF press centre on the Falls Road the day after the hunger strike ended and tape-recorded his answers. A few weeks later Adams’ prediction became reality when SF at its ard-fheis endorsed what would become known as ‘the armalite and ballot box strategy’.

This is the relevant paragraph: ‘Provisional Sinn Fein would continue to participate more directly in political activity, a process which, he (Adams) said, had been “accelerated dramatically” by the hunger-strikes. He said that the “wouldn’t be at all surprised” if the Provisionals decided to field candidates if the new Secretary of State, Mr Prior, launched an initiative involving elections.’

How The Irish Times reported end of 1981 hunger strikes

From the archives: News reports and analysis by Ed Moloney and Dick Walsh from October 3rd and October 5th, 1981

Families unite to end Long Kesh hunger-strikes
Ed Moloney, October 3rd, 1981

AN END to the Long Kesh hunger-strikes appeared close last night when it became clear that the families of all six remaining hunger-strikers had given a commitment to seek medical intervention in the event of the prisoners falling into a coma or becoming incapable of making rational decisions.

The commitment was given, it was learned, at a secret meeting in a Belfast hotel last Sunday between five of the families and the Rev Denis Faul, a regular visitor to the Maze Prison who has been at the centre of efforts to end the prison protest since August. The sixth family was contacted later in the week and agreed to join the other relatives.

The Belfast meeting, at which Provisional Sinn Fein was not represented at Father Faul’s request, was held on the eve of a meeting between the prisoners’ families and the new Minister with responsibility for Prisons, Lord Gowrie, details of which only emerged some days later.

That meeting was followed the next day by a declaration from the Northern Ireland Secretary, Mr James Prior, that although the British Government was not prepared to negotiate with the hunger-strikers, prison reform was still on offer and that Lord Gowrie would be prepared to talk directly with the protestors once the fasts had ended. Mr Prior followed this up with talks with Cardinal Ó Fiaich and Father Faul.

It was also learned last night that the Northern Ireland Office has made it clear to those involved in attempts to end the prison protest that the terms allegedly agreed between the Irish Commission for Justice and Peace and the then Minister with responsibility for prisons, Mr Michael Alison, at the beginning of July are essentially still on offer.

These terms included: Prisoners to wear their own clothes at all times; increased opportunities for association between prisoners by allowing movement between the recreation rooms and the yards of adjacent H-Blocks during recreation periods; the range of work activities to be increased, including cultural, educative and craftwork activity, and work for charitable voluntary bodies.

 Talks between the Commission and the Government broke down with the death of IRA hunger-striker, Joe McDonnell, on July 8th amidst allegations from the Commission that the Government had reneged on an agreement to send in a representative to explain the terms.

Mr Alison denied at the time that a deal had been struck but Government sources have indicated privately since then that the bulk of these terms were indeed on offer.

An admission that the hunger-strikes were not having an effect on the British Government came yesterday from Provisional Sinn Fein director of publicity, Mr Danny Morrison, whose remarks fuelled speculation that the eight-month protest in which 10 prisoners died, could be drawing to a close.

Speaking on BBC Radio, Mr Morrison said: “The hunger-strike as a pressure on the British Government and as a weapon the prisoners have been able to use, is being actively subverted by people within the Irish establishment, by the SDLP but particular by the Irish Hierarchy who are working on the emotions and putting moral pressure on the understandably distressed relatives.”

He continued: “Now you have the situation where a number of relatives have given a commitment to the assistant prison chaplain in Long Kesh that they will immediately intervene if their sons lapse into unconsciousness.”

Provisional Sinn Fein and its paper, Republican News, refers to Father Faul as an “assistant prison chaplain” although no such post actually exists. Father Faul, who says Mass in the Maze every Sunday and has published numerous pamphlets alleging ill-treatment by the authorities in the prison, was unavailable for comment last night.

Mr Morrison went on to say that although his organisation would acquaint the hunger-strikers with the facts, the decision to end the protest would be up to the prisoners themselves. “At this point in time there is no indication that the hunger strike is ending,” he said.

Mr Hugh Logue, the SDLP’s economics spokesman and a member of the Irish Commission’s negotiating team, said last night that he hoped that the hunger-strikers would respond to Lord Gowrie’s meeting with their families by bringing the protest to an end. “I understand were the protest to come to an end, Lord Gowrie is likely to bring in reforms not a million miles away from those we had suggested,” he added.

It is understood that although no formal meetings have taken place this week between the families and the hunger-strikers as a group, the relatives have used their normal weekly visits to tell the prisoners of their decision to medically intervene.

Six IRA prisoners are on hunger-strike at the moment. The most seriously ill is Pat Sheehan, from the Falls Road, Belfast, who yesterday spent his 54th day without food. The others are Jackie McMullan, Andersonstown, Belfast, 46 days; Hugh Carville, Greencastle, Co Antrim, 33 days; John Pickering, Andersonstown, 26 days; Gerard Hodgins, Turf Lodge, Belfast, 19 days, and Jim Devine, Strabane, Co Tyrone, 12 days.

The intervention of families in the hunger-strikes started on July 31st when the mother of Paddy Quinn, an IRA prisoner from south Armagh, asked doctors to save his life. Quinn had gone 46 days without food at that stage.

Since then it has become increasingly apparent that the intervention of relatives offered the only way to end the prison protest. A further three families, those of Laurence McKeown, Pat McGeown and Matt Devlin, intervened and two more, those of Liam McCloskey and Bernard Fox, persuaded their sons that they would intervene unless they ended the protest voluntarily.

Protest seen as stability threat
Dick Walsh, October 3rd, 1981

AN END to the H-Block hunger-strike would be greeted with deep relief by the Government, whose members had viewed the crisis it provoked as a threat to the political stability, North and South.

 The crisis also led to a deterioration in Anglo-Irish relations during the summer and probably contributed to the long delay in arranging the first meeting between the Taoiseach, Dr FitzGerald, as head of the Government and the British Prime Minister, Mrs Thatcher.

The meeting is now expected to take place in London next month in an atmosphere much improved since Dr FitzGerald’s sharp reminders to Mrs Thatcher of her responsibility to seek a solution in the Maze by a more flexible approach to prison conditions.

In the Republic H-Block candidates made a conservable impact on the general election, winning two seats and, arguably, robbing Fianna Fail of the possibility of narrowing still further the gap between the party and the Coalition partners.

Now much of the uncertainty which the candidature of the prisoners induced will have been removed from the Cavan Monaghan by-election to replace Mr Kieran Doherty, who died on hunger-strike at the beginning of August.

The writ for the by-election may well be moved shortly after the resumption of the Fail on October 20th. And the election could be held as early as the middle of November. The National H-Blocks/Armagh Committee has not yet decided whether or not it should enter a candidate.

Dr FitzGerald and his predecessor, Mr Haughey, have at all times stressed the humanitarian basis of their concern at the continuation of the hunger-strike.

Adams says hunger strike did not mean defeat
Ed Moloney, October 5th, 1981

A “reasonable, commonsense and low key” movement by the British Government towards settlement conditions outlined by the protesting Republican prisoners in July and August would permanently end the prison protest, the vice-president of Provisional Sinn Fein, Mr Gerry Adams, said at the weekend.

In an interview with The Irish Times, Mr Adams rejected the idea that the ending of the hunger-strike was a defeat for the prisoners and said that his reaction to the prisoners’ decision, given that the original protest was still going on, was one of “qualified relief.”

Asked what he thought should happen in the prison now, Mr Adams said that the situation was exactly the same as after last December’s fasts when the British Government had indicated that it would introduce changes in the prison.

“The British have now indicated again that they are going to make certain moves. The prisoners will respond to those moves in a principled and united way. The British know exactly what they have to do now, I’m sure that those in the British camp in December who wanted to move to meet the prisoners’ requirements will now be saying and probably have been saying for the last six or seven months, ‘we told you so,’ and they’ll be saying now ‘let’s not have this happen again,’”, he said.

Mr Adams said he would regard the immediate granting of the prisoners’ own clothes as a “worthwhile gesture” which would ease the prison situation but added: “What the British Government should do is to make a broad sweeping effort to make the hunger-strike weapon redundant, to make it unnecessary.”

PRISONERS’ CONDITIONS

He continued: “A very reasonable and commonsense movement towards the conditions outlined by the prisoners on July 4th and August 6th, a very reasonable, low-key movement towards those would permanently end the prison protest. I honestly see it totally being in the British Government’s interest to do it.”

In their July and August statements the prisoners denied that they were asking for an “elitist, or preferential” prison regime and listed their demands as follows: their own clothes at all times; work to be defined as self-education and the maintenance by prisoners of their own cells and wings; association within the wings during lock-up hours; segregation from Loyalist prisoners, and full restoration of lost remission.

 Mr Adams said that it was absurd to describe the end of the hunger-strike as a defeat. “The criminalisation policy was aimed directly at isolating the Republican movement from the people but, obviously, any observer of the situation must conclude that the Republican movement is now more integrated into its support groups destabilisation has become the order of the day in both parts of the partitioned State; national consciousness has been aroused; internationally, the prisoners are recognised as political and all that remains is the securing of conditions suitable to that status.”

Mr Adams admitted that the action of hunger-strikers’ families had “severely impaired” the ability of the prisoners to consider a third fast if the prison situation broke down again. This he blamed on those “who had subverted the hunger-strike for their own ends.”

Mr Adams also rejected the idea of the prison situation being monitored by bodies such as the Irish Commission for Justice and Peace or the Help the Prisoners’ Committee, headed by Cardinal Ó Fiaich. “It’s up to the prisoners but, essentially, there’s no need for any sort of monitoring committee – it merely requires the British to move.”

Provisional Sinn Fein would continue to participate more directly in political activity, a process which, he said, had been “accelerated dramatically” by the hunger-strikes. He said that the “wouldn’t be at all surprised” if the Provisionals decided to field candidates if the new Secretary of State, Mr Prior, launched an initiative involving elections.

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