Tragic: The coffin of 23-year-old Thomas McElwee is carried by his eight sisters after his death on August 8, 1981. He had been on hunger strike for 62 days.

Former Irish Taoiseach Garrett Fitzgerald has claimed that the IRA scuppered a deal which would have ended the Maze Hunger Strikes in 1981.

Fitzgerald said he was convinced that the IRA refused a deal which would have prevented the last six of 10 deaths.

Fitzgerald - in an interview with the Irish News in Belfast - said the Irish Government had a "mole" in the Maze and that the source said the prison leadership was prepared to sign up to a deal with the British Government. Instead, according to Fitzgerald, the outside leadership told the hunger strikers to continue.

Fitzgerald's interview has set off a new row within Irish nationalism which has been simmering since the 2005 release of Richard O’Rawe's book, "Blanketmen."

Rawe, a former prisoner and pr officer for the prisoners at the Maze, had alleged that a Sinn Fein committee had refused to agree to a deal to end the protest in July 1981.

By then, the Hunger Strike had already claimed the lives of four men including Bobby Sands. Sands' death sparked off a wave of fury in Ireland and more than 100,000 people lined the streets to watch his funeral procession.

O'Rawe said the July deal was offered just two days before the death of Joe McDonnell, who would be buried besides Sands.

O'Rawe says Sinn Fein could have been trying to make politcial capital out of the Hunger Strikes.

However, Sinn Fein leadership has denied this and says the documents from the time show that the British Government was not about to agree a deal.