The Irish Times’ reading of the British National Archives for 1980 reveals that Pope John Paul II came to favour the Church putting pressure on the Maze prisoners as well as on the British government to end the first hunger strike – an approach apparently greeted with lack of enthusiasm at first by Cardinal O Fiaich whose leadership was viewed as being ” not particularly helpful.” Clerical exceptions were seen as Frs Faul and Alec Reid who is reported in one despatch as suffering a breakdown. Lessons of the first hunger strike were fated to be ignored by all sides – except perhaps by Sinn Fein. The only element that was definitely repeated in the handling of the second was the confusion of the first.
The newly released papers report that Archbishop Heim (Vatican ambassador to London) told British officials the pope’s message to the bishops “gave a significant steer to them to do what they could to prevent the continuation of the hunger-strike”.
British officials believed the message “had obviously been somewhat unwelcome” to the bishops, “to judge from the lack of any announcement from Archbishop O’Fiaich or any others, or the release of the text”.
But the message was “clear enough: the Irish hierarchy should not address themselves merely to the British authorities (as they have up to now) but also to the prisoners themselves (which they have hitherto failed to do)
Interestingly the Daily Telegraph’s longer account begins with pressure from the Pope being politely rebuffed by the Prime Minister.
“I would ask you to consider personally possible solutions in order to avoid irreversible consequences that could perhaps prove irreparable.”
Mrs Thatcher wrote back explaining that the prisoners – six from the Provisional IRA and one from the Irish National Liberation Army – had all been convicted of serious crimes such as murder, and insisted she would not make any concessions such as granting them political prisoner status.
The Guardian’s report includes a world survey of prisoner uniforms and the extract:
Secret cabinet minutes on 23 October record (NI Secretary Humphrey Atkins) proposing to issue a statement making clear “that the government [was] in no circumstances prepared to grant special status to the PIRA prisoners but that as part of the continuing process of penal reform they were prepared to allow all prisoners to wear approved civilian clothing.
“[Atkins] considered that a statement on those lines would deprive the protesters of a great deal of public sympathy … and would be better made now than at a later stage when it could be presented as a surrender to the prisoners’ action.”
The prime minister agreed but insisted that “once the government’s position had been made clear, no further concessions should be offered.” Similar comments – such as “We cannot make any concessions” – appear in the margins of other cabinet documents on the hunger strike in Thatcher’s characteristic blue felt pen.
The other well-trodden theme was Charles Haughey’s brief honeymoon with Margaret Thatcher over what the phrase “totality of relationships” actually meant. Both the British and the Irish archive, here reviewed by historian John Bowman, are in basic agreement that Haughey stretched the meaning to what became breaking point.
Former BBC journalist and manager in Belfast, Manchester and London, Editor Spolight; Political Editor BBC NI; Current Affairs Commissioning editor BBC Radio 4; Editor Political and Parliamentary Programmes, BBC Westminster; former London Editor Belfast Telegraph. Hon Senior Research Fellow, The Constitution Unit, Univ Coll. London