Records: Pope wrote to Thatcher over hunger strikers

The Pope wrote to Margaret Thatcher about his "deep" concerns for republican inmates on hunger strike in the Maze Prison, previously secret papers showed.

Pope John Paul II urged the former prime minister to "consider personally" solutions to the crisis in which seven IRA inmates deliberately starved themselves at the notorious Northern Ireland jail in the hope of winning prisoner-of-war status.

The personal message from John Paul II reads: "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 am aware that the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, Mr Atkins, has already been asked to examine the problem and to seek possible solutions.

"In the spirit of the call for peace and reconciliation which I made at Drogheda during my pastoral visit to Ireland last year, I would express my deep concern about 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."

The letter was made public as part of a release of previously secret Government papers from 1980 held by the National Archives in Kew, London.

The origins of the protest lay in the 1976 decision by the British Government to treat newly convicted IRA prisoners as ordinary criminals rather than political prisoners.

The removal of "special category" status was extended to all paramilitary prisoners in March 1980.

Seven republican prisoners went on hunger strike in October 1980 in response. They were joined in the following month by 23 more.

Thatcher responded to the Pontiff's letter explaining that she had discussed the strike, but would not be making any concession to the protesters.

Her letter of response reads: "I explained during our conversation my very deep concern, and that of the Government as a whole at the implications of the hunger strike.

"It can bring no benefit to the hunger strikers themselves and threatens to bring violence and bloodshed to all the people of Northern Ireland.

"I also explained that I and my colleagues in the Government are firmly resolved that it would be utterly wrong for the Government to take any steps that which could be regarded as conceding that political motives can excuse murder or other serious crimes."

Other files revealed that the Government was well aware that the hunger strikers were resolved to commit suicide if necessary.

A telegram listed as being from a "delicate source" reveals: "We must assume that at least some of those on hunger strike will carry it through to the end.

"The first seven have been carefully selected for their dedication and toughness: And to represent different areas of the province, thus reproducing a reciprocal sense of identification between them and their supporters at local level."

Another memo highlights the political balancing act the government were facing: "The problems are going to be to keep the peace in the streets of Northern Ireland; to recapture and then retain the initiative in the propaganda battle; and finally to find a way of getting the strikers and the PIRA off the hook without making concessions which will be interpreted by the Loyalists as surrender."

Thatcher has scribbled on this letter - "we cannot make any concessions".

The 1980 hunger strike was called off at the end of December, but the following year another was launched.

The 1981 hunger strike resulted in the deaths of 10 republican prisoners.

The aftermath of this protest resulted in an upsurge of violence in the region.

The British Government's hardline stance also served to cement Thatcher as a hate figure for large sections of the republican movement.

Freya Kirkpatrick rides her bicycle along a path through a stunning carpet of bluebells in Bow Wood near Matlock, Derbyshire. Picture: F Stop Press Ltd.

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