Northern Ireland

IRA disagreement over 1981 hunger strike files

Maze prison
Image caption New government information has raised more questions over whether the 1981 hunger strikes could have been stopped sooner.

Veteran republicans have continued to disagree over the release of classified government documents concerning the 1981 hunger strikes.

The papers suggest the government made an offer that could have saved the fifth man to die, Joe McDonnell.

Richard O'Rawe, the IRA's second-in-command in the Maze Prison at the time, has backed the scenario played out in the government documents.

But Sinn Fein's then publicity director Danny Morrison rejected that account.

The government papers were released under the 30 years rule and also appear to show that Margaret Thatcher was involved in negotiations with the IRA during the hunger strikes.

Speaking on Radio Ulster, Mr O'Rawe repeated allegations he originally made in his book Blanketmen in 2005, that the IRA leadership allowed men to die despite there being a considerable offer on the table from the British government.

Mr Morrison has consistently rejected this and said that at the time it was "unclear what they were proposing to do".

The debate centres on and around 5 July 1981 and the supposed offer that was made. Mr O'Rawe said it was virtually identical to that which the republican prisoners ultimately accepted much later after 10 men had died.

Mr O'Rawe said it was "absolute rubbish" that the prisoners were made aware of everything that was happening.

"The prisoners were consulted about nothing, absolutely nothing," he said.

Image caption Government papers reveal Margaret Thatcher made an offer to republican prisoners in 1981

"I was number two in the prison, effectively, as PRO (press officer) of the prisoners. Bik McFarlane was number one.

Adams rejection

"I knew nothing about any of this. I knew there was telephone conversations but the first I have seen them in context was the release of government papers last week like everyone else.

"The prisoners knew nothing, the prisoners were told absolutely nothing and to suggest otherwise is nonsense."

Mr Morrison was granted access to the Maze Prison in 1981 and Mr O'Rawe said he was involved in passing on the offer to the prisoners.

"The fact of the matter is that the prison leadership, Bik McFarlane and myself, accepted the offer," he said.

"The offer which Danny Morrison brought in, which Brendan Duddy said he brought in, which I say he brought in on 5 July when he visited the prison hospital.

"Bik McFarlane came back to our wing and he and I accepted the offer. That's the bottom line.

"After that, a communication came in from Gerry Adams rejecting our acceptance of the offer. If the prisoners were sovereign then the hunger strike should have ended."

Mr Morrison, who helped lead the negotiations, said Mrs Thatcher was not prepared to do a deal with the IRA during the hunger strikes.

He said she had ultimately listened to her advisers who were opposed to any compromise.

"Humphrey Atkins, who was secretary of state, and Michael Ellison, who was the prisons minister, their advice to her throughout was 'do nothing, don't move'," he said.

"If we go back to a document that was released, on the 18 July this is what the document says :'She (Mrs Thatcher) was more concerned about doing the right thing by Northern Ireland than to try and satisfy international critics'.

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