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John Hume was 'rather blunt' with Margaret Thatcher in secret meeting

Notes from a secret meeting have just been released.

Image: PA Archive/Press Association Images

DURING A SECRET meeting in February 1984, John Hume used “rather blunt language” with then British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher when discussing Northern Ireland affairs – but she did not “bridle” at any of it.

In a post-meeting brief to the Taoiseach, political advisor Michael Lillis said that the SDLP leader tried to explain the problem of alienation.

The document, released today under the 30 year rule, reveals that Hume blamed Thatcher’s handling of the hunger strike “more than anything else” for the worsening of the situation. He said that “young people who were now 18 could remember nothing except violence and the military presence in their lives”.

Most young Catholic people had been subjected to harassment just because they were known to come from Catholic areas, Hume told Thatcher, adding that they were “easy prey for the IRA” given their low prospects of employment.

On the “alienation” aspect of law and order, Lillis writes that Hume said they were administered by “the enemy” – “alien, non-Irish” forces that were seen as supporting a repressive State.

The brief continues:

He said that the British had then developed a way of life in which symbols played a considerable part in the system of security and justice and he gave instances of this, arguing that it was both the presence of this “alien” system of symbols and the absence of their own ‘Irish’ security and legal systems which provoked alienation most acutely.

Hume said it was to his surprise that the Prime Minister did not “bridle” at these words. He also felt that while she was “well briefed” on the facts of the situation in Northern Ireland, she had still not “developed an adequate feel for it”.

However, she did suggest that the pair stay in touch. The last word was given to her parliamentary secretary Michael Allison who asked Hume if he agreed that any solution to the problems would have to involve a “high degree of autonomy” for the North.

Unsurprisingly, Hume said he “absolutely” agreed.

***

As Hume had pointed out, hunger strikes in the early 1980s were a massive headache for the British and Irish governments.

In another document kept in the Taoiseach department’s secret files, Lillis describes how the State raised its concerns about the threat of a hunger strike in 1984 with the British Embassy.

They were told that the Northern Ireland Office were “concerned but not alarmed” by the situation.

They believed there were “definite plans” in place by remand prisoners in the Crumlin Road jail, Belfast to begin a hunger strike in March or April 1984 – three years after the famous actions by inmates of the Maze.

The prisoners were protesting the use of “supergrasses” in trials against INLA men.

Despite the worry, nobody believed hunger strikes in 1984 could “take on the serious proportions” of the 1980/1981 protests.

In a second meeting, held in March and involving the Minister for Foreign Affairs, the government expressed its “strong concern” that “if a strike started, the Provos would move in and capitalise on the emotions involved even though the INLA were behind the proposed hunger strike”.

It was all about timing as well, given the European elections and the visit of US President Ronald Reagan.

The Minister stressed that “everything possible should be done to disarm the Provos and the INLA of another major propaganda weapon.

Northern Ireland Secretary Lord Prior promised to do what he could to “bring the temperature down and to allow the Provos as little room for manoeuvre as possible”.

Thatcher in ’84: ‘The Irish don’t like to move, but they’re all terribly happy to move to Britain’

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