Print Version    Email to Friend
Pope John Paul II tried to end 1981 Irish hunger strike

DUBLIN (CNS): Declassified British documents reveal the extent to which Pope John Paul II offered to intervene and bring and end to the 1981 hunger strike by Provisional Irish Republican Army prisoners in a British jail in Northern Ireland. 

The documents claim that the leader, 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 Monsignor John Magee, who was sent to persuade the prisoners to call off their action. 

The state papers, declassified under the 30-year-rule, claim that Sands told Monsignor Magee, who later became the bishop of Cloyne, that he would suspend his strike in return for discussions with a British government official, with 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 vehemently rejected. 

Sands died on 5 May 1981, after 66 days on hunger strike. He was buried with a crucifix that Monsignor 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 polarised 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. 

More from this section