The illegal Provisional Irish Republican Army clearly hopes to exploit the untimely death of hunger striker Bobby Sands to court world sympathy and advance its cause. Indeed it is hard to suppress compassion for a young man who feels so deeply about his convictions as to take his own life. But it will compound the tragedy if the Sands suicide intensifies the bitterness and hatred rending Northern Ireland and frustrates what has seemed to be the beginnings of a promising search for solutions. Restraint, a quieting of passions, and constructive thought are needed to forestall still more violence and to give renewed impetus to the quest for peace.
Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher cannot be faulted for her staunch refusal to give in to the demands of inmate Bobby Sands and the almost 400 other IRA prisoners at Maze prison who wish to be granted special status and treated as political prisoners. To do so would be to give legitimacy to the Provisional IRA and invite misuse of prison privileges for plotting further outrageous acts of terrorism. World attention may be focused at the moment on one dramatic act of self-violence. But what of the hundreds of innocent victims of IRA brutality and bloodshed in Ulster who scarcely receive mention on the front pages of newspapers, murders, and maiming which Roman Catholic clergy themselves condemn? The British government has little choice but to stand firm on the basic principle that the IRA terrorists are criminals, even while taking care to ensure humane conditions in prison and scrupulous observance of the law by British police and military.
It should not be forgotten abroad, meantime, that the IRA is not a force for peace and reconciliation but of divisiveness and destruction. It is not supported by the Republic of Ireland or by the vast majority of Roman Catholics in beleaguered Northern Ireland. Its goal is not only to push the British out of Ulster and unite Ireland by force, but to carry out a radical left-wing revolution. Those Irish-Americans who so mindlessly contribute funds to the IRA should be aware that the IRA receives much of its weaponry (and moral support) from Soviet-bloc countries. The fact that Moscow now lauds Bobby Sands as a martyred freedom fighter should give IRA sympathizers in the West pause.
This is not to say that the ultimate solution to the grievous Irish problem may not lie through unification. Many thoughtful observers believe that an Ireland united in a federal system that fully protects Protestants offers the only viable solution in the long run. But what is at issue is how this or any solution can gradually evolve, especially in a climate of unrelenting fear and animosity. It is ardently to be hoped that neither Bobby Sands's death nor the upcoming election in the Irish Republic will deter Mrs. Thatcher and Prime Minister Haughey from continuing to explore new institutional arrangements between London and Dublin that would preserve the rights of Ulster's Protestants but enable the province to feel closer to the predominantly Roman Catholic Republic of Ireland. This initiative, launched following the surprise meeting of the two leaders last December, seems to hold out the greatest prospects for progress.
The most urgent need now, however, is for Protestants and Roman Catholics of Northern Ireland and indeed throughout the world to see the Sands incident for what it really is -- a desperate, sad act of violence against the peaceful path to accommodation which their Christian beliefs teach. The temptation to perpetuate communal strife may be strong. But even stronger should be the determination to reject the IRA's extremist tactics and to reach out for the healing methods of compromise, magnanimity, and forgiveness.