New spurs to Ulster progress

Swift prison reforms by the British government are one means to speed the healing of political and sectarian divisions worsened by the long IRA hunger strike in Northern Ireland. But more far-reaching measures are also necessary in the conciliatory spirit expressed in both Britain and Irish Republic during the days before the fast was called off on the weekend.

Britain's new secretary of state for Northern Ireland, James Prior, got to the heart of the matter last week when he said that people in Northern Ireland should have more responsiblility for their own affairs. At about the same time the opposition Labour Party's conference was voting down calls to withdraw British troops from Northern Ireland and to support the IRA strikers' demand -- while backing the more moderate departure of a long-term approach to unify Northern Ireland and the Irish Republic by consent. A bit earlier Irish Prime Minister FitzGerald was advocating such gestures toward religious and political amity as eliminating sectarian (meaning Roman Catholic) bias from his country's laws, and a claim to the whole Irish island from its Constitution.

The stage already seemed well set for the forthcoming summit meeting between Dr. FitzGerald and Prime Minister Thatcher. Now the end of the strike -- with its toll of 10 lives inside the prison accompanied by violence taking more 50 outside -- offers another positive element in the climate for peaceful change. At the same time, continued British-Irish cooperation in law enforcement will be valuable against a predicted increase in the terrorism the illegal IRA had been cutting back on during the strike.

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This year's stike began when the IRA charged the British government with reneging on an agreement that it said brought and end to last year's hunger strike. The government denies there was any agreement then or now. It remains the strong position of refusing to bargain with terrorists for political prisoner status, while preparing to improve conditions for all prisoners, including those from Protestant extremist groups who area said to make up almost a third of some 1,500 people jailed for terrorist activities in Northern Ireland. Special status was available to inmates guilty of committing politically motivated crimes before 1976, leaving later offenders to protest a changed standard. The special status was eliminated after such abuses as conducting classes in guerrilla warfare.

Without opening the door to new abuses, the government could proceed with its previously mentioned improvements for all prisoners -- and, in the same spirit, respond to legal critics by ensuring that the whole justice process is applied equitably to all defendants. Such steps would help prepare the way for the larger solutions to which the British and Irish governments are freshly -- and laudably -- addressing themselves.

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