Northern Ireland news

Gerry Fitt urged British to reject Hunger Striker demands days before Bobby Sands died

IRA hunger striker Bobby Sands
Connla Young

FORMER SDLP leader Gerry Fitt urged the British government to reject the demands made by the 1981 hunger strikers days before the death of Bobby Sands.

Mr Fitt made the appeal in a phone call to Northern Ireland Office (NIO) official Jonathan Margetts less than two weeks before the IRA hunger striker died.

In a memo, entitled ‘note for the record’ and dated April 24, 1981, Mr Margetts confirms that he received a call from Mr Fitt, who at the time was MP for West Belfast.

Mr Sands died on May 5 after 66 days without food.

He had been elected as MP for Fermanagh South Tyrone the previous month.

In the note, Mr Margetts records details of the conversation with Mr Fitt, who at the time had left the SDLP and was opposed to the hunger strike.

He wrote that Mr Fitt had said the north “was currently in a particularly dangerous situation but not half so dangerous as it would if the government gave into Bobby Sands’ demands”.

“He said that he had been receiving messages from loyalists to the effect and that he wanted our assurance that we were not going to give in to Sands.

“I gave him that assurance and he was content.”

The office of then Secretary of State Humphrey Atkins and NIO official John Blelloch, who is believed to have been an MI5 officer, were among several senior NIO figures also sent the note.

Mr Fitt was appointed to the House of Lords in 1983 after losing his Westminster seat to former Sinn Féin president Gerry Adams.

He became a hate figure for republicans and his north Belfast home was later fire bombed.

In the years before the 1981 hunger strike republican prisoners had taken part in a bitter no wash and blanket protest to demand political status, after ‘special category status’ withdrawn by the British government in 1976.

Republicans had five demands, including the right not to wear a uniform or do prison work.

Tensions across the north were high as Mr Sands neared death.

Nine other republicans died during the hunger strike before it was eventually called off.

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