A Roman Catholic chaplain at the Maze Prison secretly told the Secretary of State that the IRA’s main justification for its 1981 hunger strike was entirely wrong, a declassified Government file has revealed.
The IRA had called off a hunger strike in 1980 after the Government issued a 30-page document setting out an offer to the prisoners.
But just months later, the IRA claimed that the Government had gone back on its word and said that it would begin a second fast, in which 10 prisoners would starve themselves to death.
However, that account is challenged by one of the few outside figures to have sustained contact with prisoners over the period. A stray document from 1981 included in a file which did not close until 1986 contains the clear and repeatedly stated view of Monsignor Tom Toner that the Government had not gone back on its word.
The implication – though it is not spelt out in the document – is that the second hunger strike was begun on a false premise.
The comments came in a meeting between the Secretary of State, three senior NIO officials and three Catholic representatives – Cardinal Tomas O’Fiaich, Fr Toner and Fr Murphy – on 18 February (10 days before the hunger strike began) in Hillsborough Castle.
A confidential note of the meeting said that prior to the meeting Cardinal O’Fiaich “emphasised ... that it was most important that the fact that the meeting was taking place should not be disclosed. At the beginning of the meeting he and the two chaplains emphasised this point, Father Toner commenting that it would adversely affect their relationship with the prisoners, who would even be annoyed that the prison chaplains had discussed the hunger strike with the Cardinal, let alone with the Secretary of State.”
Fr Toner – who died in 2012 – told the Secretary of State that the atmosphere in the prison was “frightening”. The minutes say: “There appeared to be a determination to have a ‘sacrifice’.
“The prisoner’s [sic] attitude was that the Government did nothing following the end of the hunger strike, though Father Toner himself acknowledged that the Government had done what they had undertaken to do.
“The attitude of the prisoners was more extreme than on the previous occasion. They did not really expect to succeed, although privately they probably had some faint hope that they might.”
The minutes continue: “The Cardinal explained that in that context, he thought the intransigence of Sands as the leader of the hunger strike might not be typical of the rest.
“He therefore wondered whether the prisoners could be permitted to meet together to discuss what they were setting out on.”
The minutes also show that the Catholic chaplains openly disagreed with their Cardinal in the meeting, with Cardinal O’Fiaich suggesting that the prisoners be allowed to meet together to discuss what they were setting out on, but the priests saying they did not believe that could stop the impending action.
Later in the meeting, Fr Toner again indicated his belief that the Government had acted appropriately.
He said that from the prisoners’ point of view, they needed some concession from the Government in order to call off their ‘dirty protest’ but the minutes add: “That was how the prisoners saw it; he for his part acknowledged that the Government had complied with their undertakings, and had treated the prisoners reasonably.
“It was noteworthy that the seven who had been on hunger strike had, in Father Toner’s view, been affected by the humane and considerate treatment which they received while in the prison hospital.”
After the meeting, Fr Toner spoke privately to an NIO official and was “gloomy” about the future in the prison.
“He believed that Sands had deliberately put himself in a position where he would be under maximum pressure to continue his fast to death, and he believed he would do so.
“Father Toner for his part recognised that the Government’s position had been very clearly set out, and he quite understood why they could not shift from it.”
More from the declassified files