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Margaret Thatcher pressed Pope John Paul to intervene in IRA hunger strike of 1980

December 30, 2010

British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher appealed to Pope John Paul II for help in ending a hunger strike by imprisoned members of the Irish Republican Army (IRA) in 1980, according to documents released today from the British National Archives.

Responding to a papal plea on behalf of the prisoners, Thatcher wrote to the Pontiff that she would make no concessions, insisting that any gesture—such as allowing IRA members to be classed as political prisoners—would represent an unacceptable propaganda victory for the IRA and incite new violence in Northern Ireland.

At the same time, Thatcher told the Pope, “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.” However, in a confidential memo the prime minister complained: “The Church is not being particularly helpful.” She singled out Cardinal Tomas O Flaich and then-Bishop (later Cardinal) Cahal Daly for criticism, saying that they had “not as yet taken a very constructive line.”

Pope John Paul did urge the Irish bishops to persuade the IRA prisoners not to undertake a possibly suicidal hunger strike. At the same time the Pontiff encouraged the Irish hierarchy to continue pressing British authorities for better treatment of the prisoners. The prisoners’ hunger strike was ended in December 1980, after an appeal by Cardinal O Flaich.

The next year, another IRA hunger strike was begun, led by Bobby Sands. Despite a personal plea from the Pope—delivered by Father John Magee, then the Pontiff’s private secretary—Sands continued his hunger strike until his death in May 1981. Nine other IRA priosners eventually died before the hunger strike ended.


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  • Posted by: wolfdavef3415 - Dec. 31, 2010 1:18 AM ET USA

    The Irish were 'not particularly helpful' to the British? Forgive the part of my mind with historical perspective from being exactly shocked by such a revelation, but the British treatment of the Irish Catholics was appalling. To say the Church is not being helpful is mere whining compared to the things endured by the Irish at the hands of their British rulers.