Ordeal in Northern Ireland

The Amnesty International human rights organization has identified political prisoners or "prisoners of conscience" all over the world. While their cases cry for relief, the world's media are focused instead on a convicted criminal whom Amnesty has not adopted as a prisoner of conscience. He is Bobby Sands, a leader of the illegal Irish Republican Army, serving a 14-year sentence in a Belfast prison for firearms violations. He has been on a hunger strike for almost two months to obtain favored political prisoner status for himself and other imprisoned IRA members. His fasting has already brought tragic violence in its train -- and predictions of civil war in Northern Ireland should he succumb. For all the pity called forth by this individual's physical decline, for all the propaganda on both sides that is being made out of his situation, it must be kept in perspective if solutions are to be found to the turmoil of which it is a part.

Nothing about Mr. Sands's criminal status was altered by his election to the British Parliament in the midst of his hunger strike. The British government has taken a principled position in refusing to give special status to criminals simply because they claim political motivation. Neither does Amnesty International support a special status for any prisoners, though it wants the maintenance of humane conditions for all, as well as full legal processes in the treatment of the accused.

It is important that Prime Minister Thatcher ensure a follow-through on what she said last month -- that prison conditions should be humane and that "the police and Army fully accept their duty to operate solely within the law and to act in a way which wins the support of the whole community." She might also usefully call for review of the emergency powers legislation of the past decade to see whether it needs revision. Questions have been raised about special arrest, search, interrogation, and other provisions as inviting abuses and reducing public confidence in the workings of justice.

At the same time, Mrs. Thatcher and Prime Minister Haughey of the Republic of Ireland should not be deterred from their cooperative efforts to seek long-range resolution of Northern Ireland's problems. Their unified front against IRA or any other kind of terrorism should not be vitiated by denunciations from either Roman Catholic or Protestant extremists.

And it should be remembered that such religious labels in Northern Ireland have become a kind of short-hand for describing opposing political positions. When it comes to religious outlook, the yearning for peace has cut across denominational lines and brought many Northern Irish people together against the violence in their midst.

The self-imposed ordeal of Bobby Sands is sadly threatening to bring forth sympathies and hatreds that make members of the public seem to tolerate either the violence his IRA stands for or the violence of those willing to use terror tactics on the other side. Never have prayers been more necessary from those of all persuasions who are determined that their religious convic tions be the servants of peace rather than conflict.

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