Pope told Thatcher of hunger-strike concern
Published 30/12/2010 | 05:00
THE Pope wrote to Margaret Thatcher about his "deep" concerns for republican inmates on hunger strike in the Maze Prison, previously secret papers have revealed.
Pope John Paul II urged the former British prime minister to "consider personally" solutions to the crisis in which seven IRA inmates deliberately starved themselves at the notorious jail in the hope of winning political status.
The personal message from John Paul II said: "I am receiving disturbing news about the tension in the Maze Prison in Northern Ireland, where a number of prisoners have begun a hunger strike.
"I am aware that the secretary of state for Northern Ireland, Mr Atkins, has already been asked to examine the problem and to seek possible solutions.
"In the spirit of the call for peace and reconciliation which I made at Drogheda during my pastoral visit to Ireland last year, I would express my deep concern about the tragic consequences which the agitation could have for the prisoners themselves and also the possible grave repercussions upon the whole situation in Northern Ireland.
"I would ask you to consider personally, possible solutions in order to avoid irreversible consequences that could perhaps prove irreparable."
The letter was made public as part of a release of previously secret British government papers from 1980 held by the National Archives in Kew, London.
The origins of the protest lay in the 1976 decision by the British government to treat newly convicted IRA prisoners as ordinary criminals rather than political prisoners.
The removal of "special category" status was extended to all paramilitary prisoners in March 1980.
Seven republican prisoners went on hunger strike in October 1980 in response. The following month another 23 prisoners joined the strike.
Mrs Thatcher responded to the Pontiff's letter, explaining that she had discussed the strike but would not be making any concession to the protesters.
Mrs Thatcher wrote: "I explained during our conversation my very deep concern, and that of the government as a whole at the implications of the hunger strike.
"It can bring no benefit to the hunger strikers themselves and threatens to bring violence and bloodshed to all the people of Northern Ireland.
"I also explained that I and my colleagues are firmly resolved that it would be utterly wrong for the government to take any steps that which could be regarded as conceding that political motives can excuse murder or other serious crimes."
Other files revealed that the Government was well aware that the hunger strikers were prepared to die if necessary.
The 1980 hunger strike was called off at the end of December, but the following year another was launched.
The 1981 hunger strike, which resulted in the deaths of 10 republican prisoners, made Mrs Thatcher a hate figure for the republican movement.