Dublin — For seven months and ten lives the IRA hunger strike in Northern Ireland froze politics, polarized the local people, strengthened the unyielding, and placed Britain in the dock internationally.
Now, with the prison fast by members of the illegal Irish Republican Army ending this past weekend, fresh opportunities open up for renewed political dialogue.
But some of Ulster's basic context has changed -- some aspects for the worse and some for the better.
On the negative side, Northern Ireland's moderates have taken a battering during the hunger strike. The mainly Roman Catholic Social Democratic and Labour Party, for example, has been severely damaged by its moderate approach. And while funds have flowed in to the IRA, so also has support increased for the extremes of Protestant opinion.
On the more politive side, there are several new political elements:
* Perhaps most important are revived hopes, at least among politicians here in the Irish Republic, for a new era of Anglo-Irish cooperation. These are symbolized by the forthcoming summit conference between Irish Prime Minister Garret FitzGerald and his British counterpart, Margaret Thatcher.
The two leaders are scheduled to pick up the discussions on "the totality of relations between the two islands" which were heavily clouded by the hunger strike. And Dr. FitzGerald will be taking with him to London, as an earnest of his goodwill toward Northern Ireland Protestants, his recent proposals aimed at removing the republic's constitutional claim to the North as well as amending those laws in the South which give Roman Catholicism a special status.
* At the same time, it is anticipated that the fresh team of British ministers in charge of Northern Irish affairs will bring a new determination to resolve the conflict.
Recently appointed Northern Ireland Secretary of State James Prior flew to Belfast Sunday to brief his staff. And his new junior minister, Lord Gowrie, is the man most credited (besides the families of the hunger strikers themselves) with helping end the hunger strike. In the first direct contact with the hunger strikers since the fast began last March, Lord Gowrie went to the Maze prison outside Belfast last week and spoke with the hunger strikers with Mr. Prior's authorization.
The British team's first objective now is expected to be to encourage a revival of moderate opinion in Northern Ireland and a reduction in the polarization of Catholic and Protestant communities.
* Behind the scenes the hunger strike has had a profound effect on the IRA itself. The leadership of the outlawed terrorist group in Belfast has been embarrassed as well as delighted to find itself exposed to the full glare of world publicity.
Essentially a secretive guerrilla organization with an autocratic leadership, the IRA found itself struggling to maintain its own preeminence over other Irish republican groups also committed to forcing Britain out of Northern Ireland.
The forum for their differences of opinion has been the hunger strikers main support group, the National H-Blocks and Armagh Committee. At first the IRA men reluctantly joined the committee, then they took it over to prevent rival groups from reestablishing themselves with the support and funds the committee has been raising, mainly in the United States.
The IRA has also been forced to abandon one of its most cherished principles -- not to "collaborate" with the governments in Dublin or London while Ireland remains partitioned. During the hunger strike, they won a seat in the Westminster Parliament and two seats in the Irish Parliament (Dail) in Dublin.
Though their successful candidates are pledged not to take up those seats, the IRA is seen as beginning to engage in conventional politics. That, in turn, is causing a rift within the movement with accusations that IRA men are "jumping on the bandwagon of the hunger strike."
Nonetheless, observers in Dublin and Belfast believe the IRA could be coaxed into future negotiations over Northern Ireland through their representatives in Westminster and the Dail.
Meanwhile, the manner by which the hunger strike was brought to an end has not humiliated either of the main protagonists -- the IRA or the British government.
The relatives of the six remaining hunger strikers persuaded their men inside the Maze prison that their fast had become hopeless, that world interest in their protest was flagging, and that Mr. Prior was prepared to be more flexible than his predecessor, Humphrey atkins.
The prisoners, in a statement, blamed the Roman Catholic hierarchy, "aided and abetted by the Irish establishment," for encouraging "feelings of hopelessness among our kith and kin." They "reluctantly" concluded that the families would continue to prevent their menfolk dying and called off the fast Oct. 3.