THE IRA’s leadership outside the Maze Prison was controlling the hunger strikers and would not let them “give up”, the British government believed.
The belief, contained in a confidential letter where officials candidly discussed the situation almost three months into the protest, is at variance with the long-standing claims by the IRA and Sinn Fein that the hunger strikers themselves drove the process which led to their deaths.
A letter from the private secretary to the prime minister, sent to the private secretary to the secretary of state for Northern Ireland on May 21, 1981, outlines detailed discussions between the prime minister, other relevant cabinet ministers and officials about the ongoing hunger strike.
At that point, two hunger strikers had died and the government was preparing for the deaths of a further two within days.
In the two-page paper titled ‘Northern Ireland’, the prime minister’s private secretary wrote that the secretary of state had told the prime minister that “a time of considerable difficulty lay ahead”.
He then went on to say: “The next hunger striker (McCreesh) would probably die the following day, and a fourth (O’Hara) by the end of the week.
“There should then be an interval of three to four weeks before the fifth striker (who had started his strike only when Sands died) would be near death, unless he chose to accelerate the process by refusing water as well as food.
“There was no sign that the Provisional Irish Republican Army (PIRA) leadership, which was controlling the strikers, would let them give up; and there was no doubt that McCreesh’s family, including his brother who was a priest, had specifically dissuaded him from breaking his fast on May 16.”
Another document in the file expands on that claim, which was reported at the time, that a priest, Fr Brian McCreesh, had persuaded his brother, Raymond McCreesh, to go through with taking his own life.
The two-page document gives some insight into the ethical dilemma which prison staff, and medics in particular, faced as prisoners starved themselves to death.
A May 18 background note, whose author is not clear despite a hand-written signature, said that two days earlier, the prisoner – then on day 56 of his hunger strike – had been confined to bed and was described by doctors as being “in a confused and disoriented state of mind”.
The note was classified as confidential, which increases the credibility of its contents as there was no propaganda value to be gained from its contents at the time.
“At around 6pm he had a conversation with the prison hospital officer, SO Nolan, and in the course of that conversation said that he would take a drink of milk.
“Mr Nolan contacted the doctor on call (Dr Emerson) and asked him to come in to the prison to see McCreesh.
“On arrival, Dr Emerson found McCreesh in a confused state of mind but, despite this, gave an affirmative answer to the question from the doctor: ‘Do you want me to save your life?’
“Dr Emerson did not regard this answer as sufficient to authorise medical intervention in view of the mental state of the patient and took two steps to have the matter clarified.
“He asked for the family to be brought to the prison and also contacted Dr Bill in the absence of Professor Love in England.”
The note continued: “The family (mother, sister, brother and priest/brother) arrived at about the same time as Dr Bill (around 9pm).
“Dr Emerson explained to the family that McCreesh was very confused but had asked for milk and medical resuscitation.
“The family then saw McCreesh and the following conversation between the priest/brother and McCreesh was overheard [another document states that the prisoner’s hearing was so poor by this stage that the family had to shout at him, which was why the conversation was heard outside].
“Q. Where are you?
“A. I am in hospital in Scotland.
“You are not in hospital in Scotland, you are in Long Kesh concentration camp.
“(Later) Your brother and I were proud to carry the coffins of Bobby Sands and Francis Hughes – they are in heaven now, waiting.”
The note then records a short dialogue between the doctors and the family after their meeting with Mr McCreesh.
“Q. Do you wish us to try to resuscitate Raymond and try to save his life?
“Answer by priest/brother. No We know Raymond’s wishes and we respect them. Nothing is to be done.
“The doctors accepted this clear decision of the family and the interview ended. It was now around 10pm.”
Three days later Raymond McCreesh died, aged 24.