A local view of the 1981 Hunger Strikes

Two months ago on December 30, 2011 the British Government released some state papers regarding the 1981 Hunger Strikes in Northern Ireland.

Two months ago on December 30, 2011 the British Government released some state papers regarding the 1981 Hunger Strikes in Northern Ireland.

By Fiona Heavey

Some of the documents released refer to secret contacts between the British Government and the IRA leadership just days before Joe McDonnell died on his 61st day of hunger strike July 8, 1981.

Joe McDonnell was an unsuccessful election candidate in the Sligo Leitrim General Election of the same year. Ballinamore Cllr John Joe McGirl was McDonnell’s election agent and despite the fact the hunger striker was unsuccessful in winning a seat, his name will always be associated with the county due to the massive support he received throughout.

An exhibition on the hunger strike giving a local, national and international view of the event is currently on show in Mohill Library.

The impressive exhibition which is on loan to Mohill Library from the local studies department in the Ballinamore Library includes a vast number of photos, articles and posters from the hunger strike period.

You are first met with the posters, advertising meetings, dances and other functions in an effort to fundraise money for the families of the hunger strikers and for the election campaign north and south.

Next up is the Leitrim Observer coverage of the hunger strikes and of Joe McDonnells election campaign in the county.

“Sands Colleague to contest Sligo Leitrim?” was the first headline to mention McDonnell as an election candidate. The paper covers the story of Fianna Fail Cllr Larry McGowan from Manorhamilton who defied his party policy and came out in support of the Long Kesh hunger strike.

Articles from the paper include “A candidate without a voice” a story about how Leitrim Observer journalist was refused permission to interview the General Election candidate Joe McDonnell. The letter of refusal from NI Secretary Humphrey Atkins made the front page of the paper.

Articles from the paper also include McDonnell’s election posters which included the slogan “The world awaits your verdict one me”, and quotes from his wife Goretti pleading for people to vote for her husband.

“We’re not asking people for their number ones for Joe McDonnell, We’re begging them,” she told the paper at the time.

In a quote from McDonnell himself he said “Outside my native city there is no area I would be prouder to be elected for, or no area in which I would feel more confident than in Leitrim and Sligo - the counties of Sean Mac Diarmada and Countess Marckievicz. ... From what may be my death bed, I ask you the people of Sligo-Leitrim to give me your support.”

McDonell was less than 400 votes short of securing a Dail seat.

There are photos of some of the hunger strikers including Bobby Sands and Joe McDonnell, and extensive coverage of both of their funerals. There are also posters supporting the hunger stikers and pictures from around the world showing protests in support of “The Five Demands.” Pictures include parades in Frankfurt, Paris, Oslo, Lisbon, London, Washington, Auckland and Sydney.

But it wasn’t just Joe McDonnell that the Leitrim people were connected to, Mariead Farrell who was in Armagh prison for possession of explosives was a H-Block candidate in 1981 General Election in Co Cork. Her mother (Gaffney) hailed from Ballinamore.

Hunger Strike Commemorations are held annually in Leitrim and nationwide. Last year was a very special occasion marking the 30th anniversary of the hunger strikes. Drumkeerin Sinn Fein Cummann is named after Joe McDonnell and they held a special parade in honour of his death last July.

The British state papers released under the 30 year rule on December 30, 2011 revealed secret contacts between the British government and the IRA leadership in the days before the death of the fifth hunger strike, Joe McDonnell.

The files have been disputed by some republican members and have caused much controversy as not all the files on the hunger strikes were released.

The documents show that the British government was contemplating concessions but demanded that the IRA should call off the strike as a pre-condition.

There was intensive contacts between the two sides over the weekend of 4-6 July conducted through the Derry-based businessman Brendan Duddy, known by the codename “Soon.”

In a letter from Northern Ireland secretary of state Humphrey Atkins to the British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher on July 6, 1981, he revealed that the government had been approached by “a third party who is trusted by the top Provisional leadership.”

According to the state papers, at midnight on 8 July a message approved by Thatcher was supposed to be sent to the IRA. Subject to an end to the fast, the British government said they would issue a statement dealing with clothing, work and remission; prisoners would be allowed to wear their own clothes, However, on the issue of work, the Prison authorities would have the final say.

The IRA’s response, Atkins told the prime minister, indicated that “they did not regard it as satisfactory and that they wanted a good deal more. This appeared to mark the end of this development and we made this clear to the PIRA…”

The papers also contain the claim that just a week before his death, Sands offered to suspend his strike for five days, when he met John Magee, then Secretary to the Pope, who later became Bishop of Cloyne.

Father Magee told Northern Secretary Humphrey Atkins that Sands said he would suspend his strike in return for discussions with a British government official, in the presence of two priests and three other prisoners as witnesses.

The British rejected the offer out of hand, claiming it was an attempt to open negotiations.

For local view of this most historic event visit the exhibition in Mohill library. The exhibition will be on display for the next two weeks.