IRA, Thatcher pause and regroup

By , Special to The Christian Science Monitor

With both British and Irish Parliaments in summer recess the hunger strike in Northern Ireland has fallen out of the headlines. But there are strong indications that the prisoners and the British government are consolidating their propaganda positions for a prolonged war of attrition.

Certainly, there is little optimism that any of the protagonists are prepared to compromise on the gruesome fast which has dominated politics in Northern Ireland and the Irish Republic all year.

Nor have Irish Prime Minister Garret FitzGerald's attempts to nudge the two sides nearer to one another succeeded. A firm date has not even been fixed for the normal twice yearly meeting with British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher.

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It is all a sharp contrast with the scene before the prisoners, members of the Provisional wing of the illegal Irish Republican Army (IRA), started their hunger strike last March.

Then it seemed that London and Dublin were edging toward a new era of political cooperation to resolve the Northern Ireland conflict. Protestant die-hards in the North were worried that they were outflanked by the Dublin-London warmth.

Today, the dialogue has lost its momentum. Civil servants involved in exploring areas for future Anglo-Irish cooperation are said to be becalmed. Dr. FitzGerald and his ministers have been caustic in their criticism of Mrs. Thatcher's handling of the hunger strike. The gulf between their political positions seems, from the Dublin view at last, to be extremely wide with no fresh initiative in sight.

The outlook for the IRA and its allies has also been turned around drastically. In recent months the hunger strike at the Maze prison near Belfast has united the various factions within the militant republican movement, which seeks to drive the British out of Northern Ireland and abolish the border with the republic in the south.

The most prominent of those factions has been the Provisional IRA, an illegal terrorist organization proscribed in both Northern Ireland and the Irish Republic which came to prominence in 1970 after the British Army was sent to Ulster to put down rioting.

Last year, before the hunger strike began, the Provisional IRA was at its lowest ebb in many years. Financial support from the US was drying up, the Provisional's gunmen and bombers were being hounded on both sides of the Irish border. The inhabitants of the Roman Catholic ghettos in Ulster's cities, where the Provisionals have most support, were wearying of the continuing violence.

The hunger strike ended that lull. Money began to pour in from the US and the Provisional leadership has been heartened by left-wing support from Europe and the Middle East. Catholics have turned up in thousands at the funerals of hunger strikes and there have been big pro-hunger strike demonstrations in Dublin and other southern Irish cities.

In recent weeks, however, those expressions of street support have waned again. Only 40 people turned up for a march to government buildings the other day.

Observers in Dublin believe the Provisional IRA wants to take over the committee organizing the hunger strike campaign to capitalize on its propaganda achievements.

The IRA's opportunity could come this weekend when a conference of hunger strike supporters has been called to elect a new committee to spearhead the campaign. Relatives of the hunger strikers, and activists involved in their campaign to improve the prison regime in Northern Ireland, will also plan their future strategy.

Ten men have died on hunger strike in the H-shaped Maze, only to be replaced by fellow prisoners apparently willing to die for what the British regard as acknowledgment of "political status."

Mrs. Thatcher and her ministers responsible for Northern Ireland have consistently maintained that prisoners convicted for terrorist offences are criminals and should not have political status. But they say they are prepared to review day-to-day living conditions in prisons in Northern Ireland -- once the hunger strike ends. Ministers deny they are under any particular pressure from abroad, particularly from the US, to alter that position.

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