Thatcher says she's sorry about hunger strikes, but she won't yield

"There is no such thing as political murder." With these words, Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher recently signaled her government's determination to resist the most intense and potentially most dangerous protest Britain has faced in Northern Ireland in the last five years: the hunger strike by prisoners at the province's Maze Prison.

Demanding "political status," seven male prisoners associated with the Provisional wing of the illegal Irish Republican Army began fasting Oct. 27, and were joined by three women prisoners Dec. 1. They had earlier protest," which since 1978 has found some prisoners deliberately fouling their cells with human waste, refusing to work, and wearing blankets instead of prison clothes.

Their five demands -- to wear their own clothes; associate freely with other prisoners; regain parole lost through their disobedience; be exempt from prison work; and receive weekly visits, letters, and parcels -- are aimed at securing recognition of the political motivation for their sometimes fatal bombings, says government officials. Conforming prisoners, say the officials, already have many of these privileges.

The government is loath to yield anything more. even to hint at "political status," say British officials, would help IRA recruiters. And, after a tradition of Irish hunger strikes stretching from before 1920 to the death of Frank Stagg in 1976, the government has adopted a policy of no conciliation.

"If these people continue with their hunger strike, it will have no effect whatsoever," said Mrs. Thatcher in a radio interview," Nov. 26. "It will just take their own lives, for which I will br profoundly sorry, because I think it's a ridiculous thing to do," she added.

Ridiculous or not, however, the prisoners apparently see themselves in the tradition of resistance to English imperialism begun by Gandhi and the suffragettes, and most recently practiced successfully by Welsh nationalist leader Gwynfor Evans, whose threat of a hunger strike forced the government to backtrack on plans for Welsh-language television in September.

But the "political status" classification was denied to protesting prisoners last June by the European Commission on Human Rights. And because they advocate violence, the London-based human-rights organization Amnesty International does not recognize the protesters as "prisoners of conscience."

Their situation continues to draw attention overseas -- particularly in America, whose estimated 18 to 19 million citizens of Irish extraction dwarf the 3 million citizens of Irish Repulic and the 1.5 million in Northern Ireland.

Massachusetts state legislator Maria Howe, who was instrumental in securing special state citations for two IRA organizers recently, was refused admision to Maze Prison last month. And the newly elected Republican senator from New York, Alfonse M. D'Amato, plans to try to visit the prison's "H-blocks" (so called because of their shape) in protest of what he calls "British misrule" in Northern Ireland. "He's not going to get in, either," confided one British official.

Particularly worrisome to the government is the specter of a sharp increase in violence if the IRA finds a martyr -- which could be especially embarrassing if it happens during the meeting between Mrs. Thatcher and Charles Haughey, prime minister of the Irish Republic, in Dublin later this month.

Mr. Haughey, who has condemned the IRA terrorists as "subversive," has remained masterfully ambiguous on his response to the hunger strikes, pointing out the dangers of increased violence and urging both sides to find an accommodation "without the sacrifice of any principles."

Meanwhile, in what police believe may be the beginning of a coordinated series of Christmas bombings, a Territorial Army barracks in London was bombed Dec. 2.

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