BY ED WEST
JOHN PAUL II wrote to Margaret Thatcher about his concerns over the IRA hunger strike at the Maze prison, newly-released Government papers have shown.
The Pontiff had told the Prime Minister he was disturbed by the decision of seven terrorists held in the Maze to refuse food and wanted a peaceful solution.
But she twice wrote back explaining that making concessions to the Republicans would be utterly wrong, and asked the Pontiff to support moves to end the crisis.
Declassified Government papers also disclose that when Mrs Thatcher made a private visit to the Vatican, she was concerned about what to wear and was told she could borrow a veil from Britain’s representative at the Holy See.
The first hunger strike of Republican prisoners began in October 1980, when seven men, six from the Irish Republican Army and one from the Irish National Liberation Army, refused food in the Maze, the highsecurity prison for paramilitaries, in protest at the Government’s refusal to give them political prisoner status.
On October 30, just three days after the start of the strike, the Vatican summoned Mark Heath, then Britain’s Minister to the Holy See, and handed him a personal message from the pope to the Prime Minister.
The message, disclosed for the first time by the National Archives, states: “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 would express my deep concern at both 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.” Mrs Thatcher wrote back explaining that the prisoners 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.
“To do so... would encourage the use of violence as a means of obtaining political objectives; and it would be likely to provoke a violent confrontation between the two communities in the North.” The Prime Minister continued: “You may be sure that we very much welcome the efforts of the clergy in Northern Ireland to persuade the prisoners both to give up the strike and to end their protest; and I hope you will be able to give your full support to this objective.” Although most Irish Catholics opposed the use of violence, there was considerable sympathy for the hunger strikers.
A secret memo written by Government officials in Northern Ireland for Mrs Thatcher at the time noted: “The Church is not being particularly helpful. Cardinal Ó Fiaich and Bishop Daly have not as yet taken a very constructive line. Fr Reid, who would have been a helpful influence, is reported to be in Drogheda suffering from a nervous breakdown” It said the authorities needed to regain the propaganda initiative and get strikers “off the hook” without making concessions that would look like surrender. But the memo also said that the IRA was thinking of a “spectacular” terror attack in support of the hunger strikes and that “the threat is being taken very seriously”.
Northern Ireland was the subject under discussion when Mrs Thatcher visited the Vatican in November 1980. Officials agreed she should not raise “the most delicate and difficult matter” of upgrading diplomatic relations to ambassadorial status, which eventually happened just before the Pope visited Britain in 1982.
The Prime Minister asked for the “fullest possible briefing” on protocol and suggested dress, with the reply coming back from Rome: “A black suit or dress with long sleeves and a high neckline would be appropriate. We can lend a veil if required.”