Duke rebuked after visit to Maze


CHURCH:A visit by Britain’s leading Catholic nobleman, the duke of Norfolk, to the Maze prison in July 1981 at the height of the hunger strikes provoked a severe rebuke from the two Catholic chaplains in the prison, newly released state papers in Belfast show.

The duke’s visit took place on July 22nd, 1981, when he was accompanied by Lord Elton, a Northern Ireland Office minister. In a subsequent report to Northern secretary Humphrey Atkins, Elton reported that, following a tour of the prison, they had visited the prison hospital where a number of hunger strikers were approaching death.

Elton reported that, while he avoided direct contact with the hunger strikers and their families, the duke “talked to [Paddy] Quinn and to the relatives of [Kieran] Doherty ”.

‘Achieve nothing’

Elton wrote of the duke: “He afterwards told me that he had identified himself as unimpeachably Roman Catholic and that this had been accepted in each case. It also seemed to be accepted by all concerned that the hunger strike had been condemned as sinful and he pointed out that it could achieve nothing.

“It became clear, however, that there was a fixed dedication to achieving the death of the hunger strikers in question.

“Doherty’s mother, in particular, made it clear that if her son came off the strike it would be a personal defeat for him. In spite of obvious emotional distress, she was committed to supporting him to the end.”

His girlfriend, however, had seemed “much less enthusiastic but said little”.

Elton spoke to the doctor on duty who had “lively suspicions” that members of the Doherty family were bringing in sustenance to the hunger striker “who had been at death’s door” and was now reciting poetry.

In their journey back from the Maze, Elton was at pains to dissuade the duke – a member of the House of Lords – from pursuing his idea of an Anglo-Irish “condominium” over Northern Ireland. He felt that subsequent conversations with the chief constable and the GOC had convinced the duke that this was “a very long way off”.

Catholic chaplains

No sooner had the duke left the Maze than he received a sharp rebuke from the two Catholic chaplains to the prison, Rev John J Murphy and Rev (later Msgr) Tom Toner. They wrote to the duke: “As chaplains responsible for the pastoral care of the prisoners . . . we resent the implications for us of a moral judgment which you passed and which you described as the teaching of the church. Your attitude and views caused unnecessary hardship for a family already bewildered and distressed by the imminent death of their son.

“Furthermore, the questioning of prisoners on hunger strike about their religious practice is something that is hardly acceptable from a casual visitor, Catholic or otherwise.”

The priests acknowledged that the duke’s concern for the prisoners and their families was “praiseworthy” but added: “In the extremely delicate situation of the Maze whose inmates have attracted pastoral attention from the pope . . . we should be obliged if you would leave the moral guidance of prisoners and their families . . . to those whose responsibility they are.”

They accused the duke of discourtesy in failing to consult them as the official Catholic chaplains at the prison.