Previously secret hunger-strike documents shine a light on South Tyrone
SECRET government documnents newly published on the internet have shone a spotlight on South Tyrone and one of the key events in the history of the Troubles.
The Public Record Office documents, published as part of the CAIN (Conflict Archive on the INternet) archive, reveal how the 1981 Fermanagh South Tyrone by-election threw the government into a panic, with several legal strategies proposed to prevent Bobby Sands from taking his seat as MP.
Confidential letters released under the 30-year rule also show that the hunger-striker’s victory took the British authorities by surprise.
Humphrey Atkins, Northern Ireland’s Secretary of State, in a letter dated April 8 to Francis Pym, the leader of the House of Commons, discussed the possibility of Sands winning the election, but said: “I would not at the moment judge this to be a likely outcome.”
Atkins also claimed that the House of Commons ‘would and should not countenance having a convicted terrorist as a member’ and confidently predicted ‘widespread revulsion’ in Northern Ireland should Sands win.
The possiblity of rushing through a change in the law was discussed by senior politicians and civil servants to prevent prisoners from standing as MPs.
The authorities misread public opinion in South Tyrone and were surprised by the large turn-out for Sands, with many in the government expecting ‘a larger proportion of Catholic voters to abstain or spoil their votes, rather than vote for a convicted terrorist’.
A confidential report concluded: “Many nationalist voters may have been influenced by the implication in Sands’ campaign that he would come off his hunger-strike and resign his seat if he won.”
Among the prison documents released is a medical report on Galbally IRA volunteer Martin Hurson describing his vital statistics on the day he declared himself on hunger-strike.
Refered to as prisoner C/278/79 from HBlock 5, his condition was described as satisfactory, with a blood pressure reading of 140/90 and a pulse of 80.
Government intervention to force individual hunger strikers to capitulate was also proposed.
The possibility of feeding the hunger strikers intravenously was suggested.
Senior Northern Ireland Office official R A Harrington said the government faced a “lull in the campaign” after the death of Sands.
In his view, “capitulation (i.e. a decision to take food) by one of the hunger strikers would be of enormous value to us, not just in itself but because of the great disarray into which the PIRA propaganda effort would be thrown”.
Mr Harrington asked if there was any possibility of using all the resources available to the government “to identify the best candidate for capitulation and then go to some lengths to organise pressure on him … before his condition becomes critical”.
He suggested that they might select a hospital officer or assistant governor to befriend the prisoner concerned and cultivate a relationship with him with a view to persuading him to end his protest.
It might be possible, he argued, to engage the Catholic Church, “possibly with the help of Bishop Philbin”, to bring further pressure to bear on the prisoner and his family.
The issue of government intervention was raised a month later, on 29 June, 1981 by the Lord Privy Seal, Sir Ian Gilmour, in a letter to NI Secretary of State, Humphrey Atkins.
Mr Gilmour suggested the possibility of feeding the hunger strikers intravenously.
In his view, “any more deaths would do great damage both in Ireland and abroad, with consequences that cannot be fully foreseen”.
The minister’s suggestion, however, did not play well with senior officials who concluded that this would require drugging hunger-strikers which would be “unthinkable”.
The Public Record Office in Belfast has released 959 previously confidential government files under the 30-year rule.
Most of these are from 1982, with a number relating to the 1981 hunger strike.
Of these, a total of 72 are recommended for full closure with 129 subject to partial closure or ‘blanking out’.
This is due to the existence of personal information or inclusion of ‘sensitive data’.
In some cases, notably in the case of files relating to the 1981 hunger strike, partial closure has been applied with papers removed or redacted.
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