NIO files: Dirty protests, violence and the 'teapot summit'

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Historian Dr Eamon Phoenix reveals some of the details contained in classified government files from 1980 which have been released under the 30-year rule.


The year, 1980, was dominated by the escalation of the 'Dirty Protest' against the removal of Special Category status from republican prisoners at the Maze Prison.

From 1 March 1976, newly sentenced IRA prisoners refused to wear jail clothing, wrapping themselves in blankets instead.

The "blanket protest" was extended in April 1978, when prisoners in the so-called H-Blocks in the Maze prison began refusing to wash or slop out.

By May 1980, it had spread to Armagh Women's Jail. In June, Kieran Nugent, the first 'blanket protester' was released amid republican jubilation.

Image caption,
The 'Dirty Protest' was over the removal of Special Category status at the Maze prison

The protest concerned the British government which took the unusual step in March of writing to the prisoners' next of kin in an effort to defuse the crisis.

The government drew some comfort from the ruling of the European Commission on Human Rights (ECHR) that the "Dirty Protest" was "self-inflicted" and that Special Category status was not justified. The Commission did, however, accuse the British government of inflexibility.

On 27 October, the prison protest escalated dangerously with the launch of a hunger strike by seven republican H-Block prisoners, demanding the right to wear their own clothes.

On 18 December, the protest was dramatically called off following an appeal by Cardinal O Fiaich and hints - unconfirmed - that the government had promised concessions.

In fact, this was rejected by Atkins, paving the way for a second, fatal hunger strike involving Bobby Sands and his comrades in 1981.


Violence continued at a low level during the year. In January three UDR men were killed by an IRA booby-trap bomb while the organisation assassinated a British army colonel in Germany in February.

Loyalist paramilitaries were also active, assassinating two leading IRSP activists, Dr Miriam Daly and Ronnie Bunting, the son of the former loyalist leader, Major Ronald Bunting amid claims of security force collusion.

By the end of the year 76 people had died as a result of the Troubles which showed no sign of ending.


As unemployment reached 13%, a poverty survey revealed that Northern Ireland was the UK's poorest region. In March an NIO Minister, Hugh Rossi voiced his shock to colleagues at the high level of deprivation, accompanied by 'a distasteful military presence,' in Ardoyne which he ascribed to "60 years of official neglect".


Image caption,
1980 saw a growing rapport between Margaret Thatcher and Charles Haughey

The year also saw a growing rapport between the new Taoiseach, Charles Haughey and Margaret Thatcher culminating in the famous 'Teapot Summit' in Dublin on 8 December 1980 at which it was agreed to examine 'the totality of relationships' between Britain and Ireland.


The year, 1980, saw Northern Ireland begin to feel the effects of public spending cuts under the new Tory government of Margaret Thatcher and her Northern Ireland Secretary of State, Humphrey Atkins.

Mrs Thatcher called a 'constitutional conference' in January on the possibility of restoring devolution at Stormont.

It was attended by the DUP, SDLP and Alliance but the Ulster Unionists, influenced by the integrationist Enoch Powell, boycotted the talks which ended dismally in July. In private discussions with Atkins, the SDLP leader, John Hume stressed the need to address the 'three strands' of the problem.