Deal with British government vetoed by IRA says FitzGerald

THE HUNGER STRIKE

By Seamus McKinney
Irish News
28/09/09

Dr Garrett FitzGerald is convinced that, if the IRA had allowed them, the 1981 hunger strikers would have accepted either of two deals on offer to them in the days and hours before Joe McDonnell became the fifth man to die.

The former taoiseach bases this belief on, among other things, intelligence supplied to him by a heretofore-undisclosed Irish government source in the Maze prison in 1981.

Now 83 years old, Dr FitzGerald admits the 1981 Hunger Strike changed his view of relations with Northern Ireland in a way that ultimately led to the Anglo-Irish Agreement of 1985.

Elected to the Dail in 1969, the future taoiseach was already the intellectual driver of Fine Gael when he first took his seat.

VIEW: Former taoiseach Garret FitzGerald says his views on the north were altered following the 1981 Hunger Strike (PICTURE: Mal McCann)

His two major areas of expertise were the Irish economy and foreign affairs through which he had a special interest in the north.

He served two periods as taoiseach, leading coalition governments from July 1981 to February 1982 and later from December 1982 until March 1987.

On his first day as taoiseach he was thrown into the maelstrom of northern politics and one of the defining periods in Irish republicanism.

After receiving his seal of office from President Patrick Hillary on June 30 1981 Dr Fitzgerald and his Labour tanaiste Michael O’Leary were faced with the prospect of further hunger strike deaths.

At the time the Catholic Church’s Irish Justice and Peace Commission was working towards a possible solution to the standoff between republican prisoners in the Maze and the British government.

“Despite an IRA statement [describing a British response to an Irish government statement as arrogant] the prisoners wanted the commission to continue its involvement,” Dr FitzGerald said.

While there was contact between the British government and the republican movement, Dr FitzGerald is adamant that his government never spoke to the IRA.

“The only contact ever with the IRA was at the Europa hotel when one of the IRA stopped one of our officials and talked to him, looking for us to let them run free – they were having some negotiations about a ceasefire – to let them do what they want and not arrest them to which we paid no attention,” he said.

Dr FitzGerald believed it was a mistake by the British government to maintain contacts with the IRA.

He believed that any contact with government encouraged the IRA to believe that its campaign of violence would eventually lead to negotiations.

“Unless they were willing to have a settlement they should not have been involved,” he said.

On taking up the position of taoiseach Dr FitzGerald was briefed about the situation in the north.

He believed the efforts by the Irish Justice and Peace Commission (IJPC) would lead to a solution before the next death – that of McDonnell.

At Dr FitzGerald’s request the IJPC was granted a meeting with NIO minister of state Michael Allison who gave the impression that he wished to be conciliatory.

Mr Allison cleared the way for the IJPC to visit the prisoners who afterwards issued a more conciliatory statement than the messages coming from Sinn Fein outside the prison.

The prisoners said they were not seeking special privileges over other inmates.

Dr FitzGerald said at this stage on July 3 he believed events were moving towards a solution to the Hunger Strike without any more loss of life.

Around this time Dr FitzGerald said Sinn Fein president Gerry Adams was contacted by Britain’s MI6 and a deal parallel to the IJPC was worked out.

“He was delighted the British were running to him and he did get an additional offer to the IJPC offer. It is my recollection that he got an offer on [access for prisoners to] the Open University which wasn’t in the IJPC offer,” he said.

Mr Adams contacted the IJPC to notify it of his talks and urge that it contact the NIO to cancel a planned meeting, clearing the way for him to continue negotiations. The commission refused to do this, believing they could achieve a protest-ending deal, Dr FitzGerald said.

“I felt that the deal which had been worked out [by the IJPC] we were talking about finishing – and which the prisoners accepted – that should go ahead and I kept on to the British about that,” he said.

“But [the British] had interfered with that and I didn’t trust the IRA about it.

“The fact was once the prisoners had a separate position from the IRA and were not pressing for the fulfilment of all five demands there was clearly a chance of moving.

“If the British had not intervened and brought the IRA back in again a deal could have been done.”

Even after the IJPC pulled out, the former taoiseach believed the prisoners were ready to accept the new deal if they had been allowed to do so by Sinn Fein.

“They were keen to accept that. We knew that. We had our sources within the prison,” he said.

“As well as from the commission, we knew something was happening in the prison from other sources.”

Dr FitzGeral added: “[Richard] O’Rawe’s account seems to me to be, within his framework of knowledge, honest and accurate.”

Dr FitzGerald said he would co-operate with any official inquiry although he felt it was pointless as he believed the leadership of the IRA would not provide an accurate account of what happened.

Following the death of McDonnell, Dr FitzGerald still believed a solution could be found because the prisoners had indicated a willingness to accept the ICJP deal.

For 10 days he pursued the ICJP deal with Britain but no agreement was reached. All negotiations over a possible solution ended and in total 10 men died before the Hunger Strike was ended.

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