A mural of the leader of the Provisional Irish Republican Army prisoners, Bobby Sands.

Documents show how pope tried to end Irish inmates' 1981 hunger strike

By  Michael Kelly, Catholic News Service
  • January 1, 2012

DUBLIN - Declassified British documents reveal the extent to which Pope John Paul II tried unsuccessfully to intervene to end a 1981 hunger strike by Catholic prisoners in a British jail in Northern Ireland.

The documents claim that, after the pope sent a special envoy, the leader of the Provisional Irish Republican Army prisoners, Bobby Sands, was willing to suspend the fast just days before he died.

The offer was conveyed to the British authorities by the pope's secretary, Irish Msgr. John Magee, whom Pope John Paul dispatched to persuade the prisoners to call off the hunger strike.

The state papers, declassified under the 30-year-rule, claim that Sands told Msgr. Magee, who later became the bishop of Cloyne, that he would suspend his strike in return for discussions with a British government official, two priests and three other prisoners as witnesses.

However, the British rejected the offer, claiming it was an attempt to open negotiations. The prisoners, incarcerated for paramilitary activity against British rule in Northern Ireland, had begun their hunger strike in a bid to be reclassified as political prisoners, a move Britain vehemently rejected.

Sands died May 5, 1981, after 66 days on hunger strike; he was buried with a crucifix that Msgr. Magee had given him as a gift from Pope John Paul. Ten prisoners starved themselves to death before a compromise was reached that October.

The hunger strike significantly polarized tensions between the majority-Protestant and minority-Catholic communities in Northern Ireland. More than 100,000 Catholics attended Sands' funeral, and Sinn Fein, the political wing of the Irish Republican Army, began contesting elections for the first time.

Most Northern Irish Catholics want Britain to cede the region to the Irish Republic to form a single independent Ireland, while most Protestants support the region's continuation in the United Kingdom. A 1998 peace accord committed all sides to pursue their goals by purely peaceful means. As a result, Northern Ireland remains part of the United Kingdom but is governed by a cross-community power-sharing government based in Belfast, Northern Ireland.

The declassified papers also reveal that Irish Prime Minister Garret FitzGerald appealed to Cardinal Tomas O Fiaich in 1981 for a change in the Catholic Church's approach to interchurch marriages.

At the time, children of interchurch marriages were required to be raised Catholic.

But FitzGerald said he believed a change would aid peace and reconciliation in Northern Ireland. He wrote the cardinal that the government wanted to "indicate concern" and "raise the possibility" that the Vatican "might not perhaps be disposed to take special account of the Irish situation if invited to do so."

"I trust that Your Eminence will appreciate and understand the motives that have led me to write to you at this time in these terms, in full recognition of the separation of church and state," he added.

Soon after, the Irish bishops decided to postpone publication of a revised directory on mixed marriages. After a meeting with British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher in November 1981, FitzGerald described the bishops' postponement as "significant."

The new directory issued in November 1983 retained the promise by the Catholic partner to raise the children Catholic, but stressed that parents had joint responsibility for the religious upbringing of their children.

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