A secret memo about a loyalist hunger strike at Magilligan Prison in 1984 reveals the belief of a senior official that the DUP’s Peter Robinson and a prominent Presbyterian minister played key roles in the development of the fast.
The September 1984 note from AK Templeton in the Prison Information Unit — which has been released at the Public Record Office —was sent to ministers, numerous senior officials, two Army personnel and two RUC men.
It said that the current strike was much better organised than a previous attempt, with “better candidates” than an earlier hunger strike in which the leader was a convicted rapist.
Mr Templeton said: “The roles of Peter Robinson and Rev [David] Armstrong seem to have been crucial in this affair. They clearly took on the political direction and community co-ordination dimensions of the strike.
“In the absence of any credible Protestant Sinn Fein, this was of clear importance in helping the prisoners develop their campaign. Indeed the prison strongly believe that the conversion of Rev Armstrong to the prisoner’s [sic] cause was the trigger for the strike; he is a powerful ally in presentational terms whatever his personal instability.
“It seems likely that the playing down of the threat to staff at this stage of the campaign [last six words underlined] owes a great deal to the intervention of these men.”
It added: “It is worth noting however that the use of the DUP in particular could be something of a double-edged sword for the prisoners.
“Robinson’s aims are not necessarily those of the prisoners and this adds a rather unknown dimension to our prognosis as to the next phase of the campaign.”
Under the heading ‘Why was the strike suspended?’, Mr Templeton speculated as to Mr Robinson’s actions.
It said that Mr Robinson had “played a major part in creating the climate of ‘flexibility’ and ‘negotiation’ to allow this to take place without loss of face. The crucial question is whether he has misled the prisoners deliberately as to their chances of success.
“Ministers had given him no hope of segregation yet the media continued to carry reports apparently contradicting this. Intelligence from the prison suggests that he did not greatly mislead them, but the information is too fragmentary to be conclusive.”
However, later in the file another official concluded that Mr Robinson - who at the time made clear he was opposed to the fast but supported the prisoners’ demand to be segregated — had not misled prisoners but communicated the Government’s messages to them.
NIO minister ‘mistrusts Robinson deeply’
Peter Robinson features frequently throughout the files which have just been released.
A March 1985 memo from AJ Whysall, private secretary to NIO minister Nicholas Scott, revealed the minister “mistrusts Mr Robinson deeply, however; and in light of the DUP’s attitudes to recent security incidents, he particularly took the view that the discussion with Mr Robinson was likely to be counterproductive.”