London — Margaret Thatcher is taking urgent steps to head off attempts by the IRA to gain an international propaganda advantage over Britain for its handling of the hunger strike at the Maza prison near Belfast.
At the same time she is having to cope with a wholly separate attempt by the Irish government to persuade the United States and West European governments that the time has come to press Britain into making major concessions at the prison.
The campaign by the Provisional wing of the illegal Irish Republican Army (IRA) is being waged mainly in the United States, particularly in New York. Demonstrations outside British diplomatic missions in the US have produced a request from London to the Reagan administration to tighten up security arrangements for protecting British diplomats.
A patiently orchestrated attempt by the republicans to harness the support of US business has led to decisions by some firms to boycott British products. Hotels, department stores, and other concerns in New York have begun hauling down the Union Jacks that normally flutter among other flags above their buildings.
In response, Foreign Secretary Lord Carrington has ordered an increase in the number of diplomats attached to the British Information Office in Washington. The office has been given a brief to counter IRA propaganda by making a strong case for Britain's handling of the Maze dispute.
One of the main themes of IRA propaganda is that conditions at the Maze and Britain's attitude to the hunger-striking prisoners contravene internationally recognized human rights agreements.
Britain counters these assertions by pointing out that the prison is one of the most modern in Britain and that the hunger strikers who have died have, in effect, taken their own lives.
Even more awkward for Mrs. Thatcher is the apparent certainty that the government in Dublin will soon mount a campaign in Washington and the capitals of Western Europe aimed at putting pressure on Britain to make concessions to the hunger strikers.
The latest sign that Dublin is preparing to mobilize international opinion on the issue came in a speech at the weekend by the Irish Deputy Prime Minister Michael O'Leary. He called Mrs. Thatcher "obdurate, intransigent, and uncaring" in her approach to the hunger strike and the toll of human lives being taken by it.
London meanwhile has learned that Irish embassies in the US and Europe have received instructions to search for support to press Mrs. Thatcher into a compromise.
News that Ireland was trying to persuade the Reagan administration to twist Britain's arm about the hunger strike led to Lord Carrington putting his government's case directly to US Secretary of State Alexander M. Haig Jr.
Since it came to power a few weeks ago, the Irish goverment under Prime Minister Garret FitzGerald has been constantly aware that the crisis at the Maze could lead to its defeat in the Dail (parliament).
Dr. FitzGerald governs with the support of independents who, if they withdrew their backing, could precipitate a general election. If he is to foster maximum grass-roots support, the Irish prime minister cannot let it appear that Britain is simply ignoring Dublin's complaints about the Maze.
This means Dr. FitzGerald feels it is essential to put as much pressure on Britain as possible, and one of the best ways of achieving this is by tryng to mobilize international opinion.