By Michael Kelly
Catholic News Service
DUBLIN (CNS) -- 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
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
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