London — The government of Ireland has issued a thinly veiled warning to Britain that mishandling the crisis over hunger strikers in Belfast's Maze Prison could greatly worsen relations between London and Dublin.
The warning followed swiftly after hunger striker Joseph McDonnell died amid fruitless attempts by an Irish mediation team to defuse the crisis. The new Irish Prim Minister, Garret FitzGerald immediately sent two ministers to London for talks with the Northern Ireland secretary, Humphrey Atkins.
They told him that another hunger striker death would provoke political instability within the Irish Republic. FitzGerald's government holds power by a tiny majority which could disappear if the lives of either of the two hunger strikers now close to death were lost, the ministers warned. One of the hunger strikers was elected last month to the Irish Dail (parliament).
Britain is under fire from members of the Irish Commission for Justice and Peace, which tried to mediate between the Ulster authorities and the hunger strikers, for apparently backsliding when a compromise was in sight last week.
The Irish government tends to side with the Commission. Atkins is under intense and mounting pressure to reopen negotiations with the hungerstrikers. The strikers themselves however have criticised the commission for allegedly allowing itself to be used by the British authorities.
The British Government is showing signs of acute sensitivity to outside criticism of its handling of the Ulster problem in general and the crisis at the Maze in particular. Atkins sent his deputy, Michael Alison, to Washington to explain to leading United States politicians why Britain feels it cannot given in to the hunger strikers.
Alison was attempting to speak via the politicians to Irish Americans heavily critical of London's policies. It was he who handled the negotiations with the Provisional wing of the illegal Irish Republcan Army (IRA) over conditions at the Maze and, in the view of the commission, drew back when a solution seemed possible.
While Alison was in Washington, Americans saw on televisions British troops mounting an attack during the funeral of McDonnell. It was the first time such an action had been ordered during an IRA funeral.
Afterward the Ulster authorities announced that a number of IRA suspects had been detained after the assault.
Although the operation was proclaimed a success by the government in Belfast, the impact on American audiences of television news pictures showing it happen was thought to be of doubtful benefit in the context of Alison's Washington visit.
The tendency of the Ulster problem to arouse criticism in other countries is plainly worrying Secretary Atkins and other members of the British government. Ireland is adjudged a friendly neighbor and, in addition, is a member with Britain of the European Community. Alienating the Dublin government would be very bad for Britain.
There is also a strengthening belief that relations with the United States will come under increasing strain if the Irish American lobby grows more influential in its representations over Ulster.
While the government in London assess these problems, it knows that there is a political time bomb still ticking away at the Maze.
Kieran Doherty has been on hunger strike for 54 days and is given barely more than a week to live if he fails to break his fast.
Doherty's significance is that he was one of two IRA men elected to seats in the Irish parliament in the general election last month. His death would be an acute problem not only for Britain but for the Irish government and Prime Minister FitzGerald.
In Belfast and along Whitehall urgent attempts are being made to find a new way to resolve the Maze Prison crisis before Doherty could become the sixth hunger st riker to die.