Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, Humphrey Atkins, stated that: ‘If Mr Sands persisted in his wish to commit suicide, that was his choice. The government would not force medical treatment upon him.’ In the United States, President Ronald Reagan, said that America would not intervene in the situation in Northern Ireland but he was ‘deeply concerned’ at events there.
A copy of an internal British embassy memo, given to the Department of the Taoiseach by an embassy official on 29 April 1981, reports a conversation between papal envoy Fr John Magee and secretary of state for Northern Ireland Humphrey Atkins.
The Newry-born cleric, who served as secretary to three popes and went on to become a controversial bishop of Cloyne, gave Atkins an account of his 75-minute meeting with Sands the night before.
The priest said that, during the prison visit a week before the hunger striker died, he had delivered “a personal message from the pope telling Mr Sands that it was his duty to stop”.
The memo continues: “Mr Sands had not responded. However, he had asked Father MacGee to tell Mr Atkins that he would suspend his strike for five days on condition that a Northern Ireland Office official should go to Long Kesh Prison and negotiate the prisoners’ five demands in the presence of ‘guarantors’.”
Atkins said the Northern Ireland Office was “not prepared to discuss Mr Sands’ request”.
Department of the Taoiseach senior official Frank Murray asked David Tatham, a counsellor at the British embassy, “what precisely was meant by the sentence, ‘Mr Sands had not responded’.”
Murray writes: “I was told that Mr Sands had in fact said ‘No’ to Fr MacGee’s request on behalf of the pope. The phrase ‘not responded’ in the message meant that Mr Sands had not responded favourably to the pope’s appeal.”
Another file on the meeting, now available in the British archives, records that: “In response to Fr Magee’s plea to end the hunger strike, Sands responded ‘do not ask me that’.”
The document adds: “Father Magee said he had asked Sands to provide time for possibilities to be explored by ending his hunger strike, if only temporarily – say for three days.
“Sands said that he would end it immediately for five days provided that certain conditions were satisfied.”
Atkins pointed out to the pope’s secretary that there was no question of any form of negotiation.
The conditions set out by Bobby Sands are listed as follows:
a) An official from the Northern Ireland Office would visit him to discuss “the whole question”.
b) Two priests should be present as guarantors.
c) Three others prisoners (“not the hunger strikers, but presumably the OCs [IRA Officers Commanding] within the prison”) should be present.
The document continues: “Sands emphasised that he was not demanding political status, but sought satisfaction on the five demands .
“If this were achieved, he would not begin his hunger strike again at the end of the five days.”
Sands said he realised that to set conditions for ending the strike was not the answer Fr Magee wanted.
But he added that it would serve no useful purpose for Fr Magee to come back again without a representative from the Northern Ireland Office.
Fr Magee asked Atkins whether there was any hope of movement on these well-known issues, as he thought “there was not any great question of principle involved”.
The Northern secretary responded that there could be no negotiation: that was what Sands was trying to initiate.
“The Government had no intention of conceding political status . . . the effect of giving in to the demands would be to create a regime within the prison in which a particular group made their own decisions as to what they wore, the nature of their work, and whether they worked, and which of their fellow prisoners they would associate with.
“To concede that would be wrong – and would also provoke a violent reaction within the Province which would threaten innocent lives.
“Fr Magee said he thought that the prisoners would not be inflexible: they wanted evidence of goodwill because promises had been made to them at the end of the last hunger strike and had not been kept.
“The SoS [secretary of state] emphasised to Fr Magee that no promises had been made at the end of the last hunger strike. That fact was well-known to Sands,” the document adds.
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