British state papers just released claim that Margaret Thatcher’s government offered to end the hunger strikes in return for an IRA ceasefire in 1981 – and the IRA was close to agreement.

The Irish Times reports on the claims made in confidential papers just released by the Thatcher Foundation.

It says the documents include ‘secret memos which point to a conviction in senior British government circles up to and including the British prime minister Margaret Thatcher that some in the IRA wanted its campaign to stop’.

The paper says the chief reference is in the minute that the then Northern secretary Humphrey Atkins sent to Mrs Thatcher on July 6th when an intermediary, businessman Brendan Duddy from Derry, was exchanging messages between Provisional leaders and the British government.

The Thatcher Foundation papers suggest this prompted an offer from the British government to settle the hunger strikes at a stage in which just four people had died.

The offer led to a long-running dispute within republicanism.

Then IRA prisoner Richard O’Rawe has repeatedly claimed that the prisoners’ leadership accepted a deal at that time to end the strike but that this was overruled by the IRA army council.

Senior Sinn Féin figures Gerry Adams and Danny Morrison have consistently denied the claim.

In the minute sent by Atkins to Thatcher, he said there were ‘some’ in the IRA leadership who wished ‘to consider an end of the current terrorist campaign’.

The papers also claim that the British government had held this view for some time.

The documents also contain a memo from the then British cabinet secretary Sir Robert Armstrong to another senior official, conveyed to Thatcher, which also adverts to an IRA desire to end its campaign.

The memo was written on April 13th 1981, just four days after hunger striker Bobby Sands was elected as MP for Fermanagh-South Tyrone. He died on May 5th.

Armstrong wrote: “There is reason to believe that the PIRA have been thinking seriously about an end to the campaign of violence, but feel they need a success, an avenue to pursue their aims politically, and something more on the prison regime.

“The Fermanagh by-election has given them the success, and a political opening, which there is reason to think they hope to follow up in the local government elections.”

The private papers confirm that while Thatcher refused publicly to deal with Provisional republicans during the hunger strikes, she did allow official contact to take place through a mediator.

The Irish Times says she was ‘prepared up to a point to allow a settlement’.

Margaret Thatcher