Northern Ireland: beyond the hunger strike

The prisoners' hunger strike in northern Ireland starkly draws attention to the need for solutions to strife going beyond the immediate and untenable demands of the strikers. Whatever the outcome of this episode, the efforts to negotiate a just form of political participation for both the Protestant majority and Roman Catholic minority will have to continue. The British government's worthy moves to that end may have borne little fruit this year. But there is hope in the fact that Britain's Prime Minister Thatcher has been meeting with the Irish Republic's Prime Minister Haughey, who has been denouncing violence as firmly as he has supported full negotiations. And Mr. Haughey proceeds now with the benefit of increased popular backing in his post, as evidenced by his party's success in a recent by-election.

An essential element in seeking solutions will be progress toward governmental consistency in dealing with the situation in northern Ireland as it is. In respect to criminal justice, which is the current headline issue, there ought to be consideration of consistency not only in providing humane conditions for prisoners but in ensuring legal procedures for the accused.

Some inconsistencies that have brought international attention are involved in the matter of the hunger strikers. They demand that convicted terrorists be given status and privileges different from other prisoners on the basis that the terrorists are "political prisoners." The inconsistency such favorable status to prisoners convicted of politically motivated crimes committed before March 1976; then it abolished this status for those convicted of later offenses. Thus many current prisoners are victims of a changed standard, however misguided the granting of special status was in the first place.

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It certainly would be misguided to grant it to prisoners, such as the original seven hunger strikers, who were convicted of terrorist acts like murder and arson on behalf of the Provisional Irish Republican Army and its campaign to end British rule in Northern Ireland. Nor would special status be any more appropriate for the six convicted Protestant extremists who last week also went on a hunger strike after the others had been fasting since Oct. 27. The use or advocacy of violence mocks the honorable name of "political prisoner." It rules out designation as "prisoner of conscience" by the Amnesty International watchdog organization.

Yet questions remain about the justice of emergency legal procedures under which alleged terrorists can be detained without immediate access to a lawyer and convicted without jury. Amnesty International is concerned about the possibility of coerced confessions being accepted as evidence. Just as there should not be inconsistency about granting convicted terrorists privileges not given to others convicted of the same crimes, neither should there be inconsistency in giving accused terrorists fewer rights and safeguards than others.

There is also the humanitarian issue of treatment of prisoners, whether they be convicted ofterrorism or not. Here Amnesty International has expressed concern about depriving prisoners who refuse to wear the prison uniform -- as do many of the convicted extremists -- of adequate exercise and occupational facilities. Amnesty took the uncompromising position that the "the availability of those facilities that are essential for the maintenance of the physical and mental health of prisoners should be unconditionalm and afforded to all prisoners at all times."

By responding to such international concerns the British and Northern Irish authorities could begin to provide a firm basis for the constructive negotiations that must replace the prophecies of violence should the hunger strikers become seen as martyrs, however inglorious their crimes.

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