Margaret Thatcher Iron Lady Archives: IRA Hunger Strike Negotiations Revealed In Secret Papers (PICTURES)

How Thatcher Made Concessions On IRA Hunger Strike

Prime minister Margaret Thatcher's secret attempts to end the IRA hunger strikes are revealed in official documents made public for the first time.

In public, she took an unbending stand, insisting she would not bow to the demands of republican prisoners held in Northern Ireland's Maze Prison for so-called "special status".

However files released by the National Archives in Kew, west London, under the 30-year rule show how her government sent messages to the IRA leadership through a secret intermediary promising concessions if the hunger strikes were called off.

The hunger strikes of 1981 triggered one of the worst crises of the Troubles, galvanising support for the republicans and turning Thatcher into a hate figure for much of Northern Ireland's nationalist community.

The government's perceived intransigence drew widespread international condemnation and by the beginning of July, the pressure on the prime minister was intense.

Four hunger strikers had died, and before his death their leader, 27-year-old Bobby Sands, had secured a propaganda coup, winning an election as an MP after standing in the Fermanagh and South Tyrone by-election.

So when the remaining hunger strikers issued a statement dropping their demand to be treated as "prisoners of war", Mrs

Thatcher authorised a message to be sent setting out the concessions the government would make if the strikes were ended.

The go-between who relayed the message to the leadership of the Provisional IRA is identified in the National Archives files only by the codename "Soon".

He has, however, been named previously as Brendan Duddy, a Londonderry businessman who for more than 20 years acted as a secret intermediary between the Government and the IRA through his contacts with MI6 officer Michael Oatley.

Mrs Thatcher clearly took a close interest in the process. The draft message in the files includes a series of detailed amendments, apparently in her handwriting.

The message ended: "If the reply we receive is unsatisfactory and there is subsequently any public reference to this exchange we shall deny that it took place. Silence will be taken as an unsatisfactory reply."

Despite the careful build-up and the apparent concession to the key IRA demands, the approach was rebuffed. The following day, a fifth hunger striker, Joe McDonnell, died.

Northern Ireland secretary Humphrey Atkins informed Mrs Thatcher: "Following the sending of the message which you approved last night, we have received, as you will know, an unsatisfactory response. That particular channel of activity is therefore now no longer active."

Nevertheless, the government then made a second attempt to break the deadlock. Mr Atkins' office told No 10 they had used Soon to repeat "what was in essence the message sent on July 7".

"Although the channel was very free with his own advice, he had nothing acceptable to say about the attitude of the Provisionals and at about 1900 hours on July 20 the Secretary of State gave us instructions that the channel should be closed," the note said.

The hunger strikes were to carry on for another three months, during which five more prisoners died.

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