The prolonged hunger strike by Bobby Sands, a jailed leader of the Provisional Wing of the illegal Irish Republican Army (IRA), has spotlighted the key issue of Anglo-Irish politics.
It has underlined the cool British logic that a convicted prisoner has no claim to political (non-criminal) status. It has demonstrated the Irish view that political status can be granted in all but name.
It has increased northern Protestant resentment that such a fuss is being made about a self-confessed IRA gunman, although (they would say) considerably less has been heard about the innocent victims of the IRA. And it has shown the political dexterity of Irish Prime Minister Charles J. Haughey in accommodating hunger strike supporters while not alienating British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher.
Bobby Sands, who is serving 14 years for firearms offenses at the Maze prison near Belfast, began his fast for political status March 1. The arguments between the British and the Provisional IRA are largely semantic. The apparent sticking point is whether prisoners should be allowed to wear their own clothes and refuse prison work.
What really is at stake is the Provisionals' claim that they should receive special privileges because they regard themselves as political and non-criminal prisoners, almost like prisoners of war. If this point is conceded the next major IRA thrust is likely to be a demand for amnesty.
The British know this and they are digging in. British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher is showing the same kind of steel on Ulster as on her controversial economic policy at Westminster. She confirmed recently that there can be no political status, saying: "A crime is a crime is a crime."
The hunger strike has considerable international implications. The basic reaction in Republican Ireland is that whatever crime a Republican might commit, it is wrong that he should die because of British inflexibility. Mr. Haughey, in an election year, must take note of this feeling -- without estranging Mrs. Thatcher, his co-architect of a new Anglo-Irish understanding hammered out in Dublin talks last December.
(Mrs. Thatcher in turn cannot afford to alienate further the one million Ulster Protestants by appearing to surrender to Sands.)
Mr. Haughey has apparently solved his dilemma by granting his blessing to Sile de Valera, granddaughter of a founder-father of the Irish state, who visited Sands at his own request with two other Irish members of Parliament. Furthermore, Mr. Haughey called in the British Ambassador to Ireland, but has gone no further. In other words, he has shown that he can use his head while his Republican heart is in the right place.
Meanwhile, there have been suggestions that the case should be taken to the European Commission on Human Rights. Last week, Mr. Sands himself described this suggestion as "ridiculous." Late last year the commission ruled against the legality of political status at the Maze, but criticized the British for being inflexible. Since then, the British have carried out certain reforms and feel that they can now happily face any further European scrutiny.
Bobby Sands may still decide to end his fast and to appeal his case to the European Commission. But at best, this move toward Europe could be a diversionary tactic by IRA supporters to extract maximum publicity and to help save Sands (if he chooses not to die). At worst, it could postpone the final crunch about political status.
Behind the diplomatic and political flurry, the actuality of violence remains. For eight afternoons and nights there has been fierce rioting in Londonderry, where passions are heightened by the Sands fast and further fueled by the deaths of two Londonderry youths killed, apparently accidentally, by a British Army vehicle. The rioting has spread to Belfast and other centers. The outlook for the next few days is ugly.
The Protestants watch developments closely and the loyalist paramilitary forces are waiting in the wings to see what happens. If Sands dies there will be more trouble from IRA supporters. If the British give in, they will face considerable loyalist wrath.