Thursday, December 30, 2010

He never left

The new year brings the Irish and British secret government papers release under the 30 year rule.  The year is 1980, which was not a good year for Northern Ireland.  Like the years around it.

Anyway, here's a question.  30 years is a long time ago and one can feel old reading the mentions of names that consumed so much attention at the time but are now "history", yet one name crops up in the papers of someone who is alive and well and very much actively participating in politics today.  Step forward the future TD for Louth, Mr Gerry Adams.  Here via the UK National Archives is one section of a memo that was written for PM Maggie Thatcher in early November 1980 by staff in the direct rule administration in Northern Ireland.  The topic is the hunger strikes.

Intelligence in the days leading up to the hunger strike demonstrated considerable confusion in the minds of the PIRA leadership as how best to use terrorism in support of the hunger strikers. Their dilemma is obvious: can they cajole and bludgeon at the same time? Most recent reports suggest that cajolery is at least temporarily the order of the day. There is, for example, intelligence that attacks on off-duty UDR, RUC and prison officers are to be suspended; and Gerry Adams is reported to have insisted on a disclaimer of the shooting on the UDR woman in Strabane on 9th October.*  How firm this policy is, or how rigorously it can be held to, remains to be seen: and it seems unlikely that it would be sustained indefinitely if only because it is in such conflict with the leadership's earlier determination to intensify the campaign this winter. As a member of the relatives action committee (concerned about the bad publicity of the Strabane murder) put it, "how can we give up the war when that's what they are in gaol for" . What does seem likely is that Adams is giving the most careful thought to how and when best to use terrorism in support of the prisoners. A turning point could be the first death.

As it happens, this was the 1st hunger strike which ended with apparent concessions the next month.  The real trouble would start when the deal fell through in 1981.   Unfortunately with these phased releases, we only know the state of thought of the government in late 1980, which leans towards the view that the strikers could be waited out (as the memo notes, the IRA leadership itself did not expect concessions).  But that set the stage for a disastrous misreading of nationalist reaction to the deaths in 1981.  It's not clear how much the government's perception of Gerry's role played into their assessment.

*the standard chronologies contain no mention of such an attack, but a list from Donegal County Council contains a possibility on 24 October.

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