Sands hunger strike: N. Ireland time bomb?

A package of cornflakes. A carton of milk. Both stand by a hospital bed in Belfast. Both are untouched, unopened. And both of the ordinary, everyday household items are part of the symbolism that has led to a new wave of violence and political maneuvering that could threaten current efforts by Dublin and London to ease one of the most intractable political disputes in the world today.

Each day for the past two months, the cornflakes and the milk have been offered to Bobby Sands, -- 27-year-old Roman Catholic member of the Provisional wing of the illegal Irish Republican Army (IRA) now serving a 14-year sentence for illegal possession of firearms.

Each day Mr. Sands has refused to eat or drink anything but water and salt. He demands prison conditions that would in effect give him political status. The British government refuses point blank.

At this writing Mr. Sands was given only days to live -- and he had become the spearhead of anti-British politicking and violence that was having repercussions in Dublin as well.

If he should die, he would become, in Irish Catholic eyes, another martyr to be killed at British hands. Predictions are for a new wave of violence -- a test of just how much support the IRA can count on in the north.

The most significant effects, however, could well be in Dublin. Prime Minister Charles J. Haughey is in political trouble because of a worsening economy and huge government overspending. He hasstaked enormous hopes on a controversial and historic decision last December to set up joint studies with British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher on the future of Ireland as a whole.

Political observers in Dublin say he badly needs to show some results of those studies, which hold out the prospect of new cooperation between London and Dublin, and perhaps a new Anglo-Irish Council.

He plans to hold a general election in Ireland in May, before the economy grows even worse. Polls now put him 10 percent behind his main rivals. Observers say he has been forced to delay the campaign because of the Sands' hunger strike.

He has tried to defuse Catholic emotion -- but if Sands dies Haughey could come under heavy pressure to condemn the Thatcher government. That, in turn, could strain relations with London and put at risk current talks on the joint studies.

Alternatively, Mr. Haughey could emerge in Ireland as the man who not only has overspent government funds, but who failed in a last-minute bid to solve the hunger strike by involving the European Human Rights Commission.

It was Mr. Haughey's advice, offered at a private meeting with Mr. Sands' mother and sister in Ireland april 23, that led the sister to frame a request to the commission. Two commission members arrived in Belfast soon afterward.

But commission members left after a vain eight hours at the prison April 25. Mr. Sands demanded that three associates be allowed to see them with him. The British authorities refused permission for two of the men (both senior members of the political wing of the IRA).

So observers in Dublin believe Mr. Haughey is in even deeper political trouble than before. If he calls the election (he discussed strategy with his Cabinet April 26) and is defeated, the likely new leader (Garrett Fitzgerald of the Fine Gael Party) would back away from the joint studies with London until he had a chance to formulate his own approach.

Mr. Haughey has tried to conciliate London so far. He has made a few public statements. On April 26 he publicly regretted the failure of the commission inquiry. What he desperately needs is a concession by Mrs. Thatcher, or for Mr. Sands to call off his hunger strike.

He is likely to get neither. Mrs. Thatcher's comment was "a crime is a crime is a crime" -- that is, Sands and fellow IRA prisoners are convicted criminals and will receive no political concessions.

Since 1974, British government policy has been opposed to force-feeding hunger strikers. Besides, the Northern Ireland Office, headed by Humphrey Atkins, is reported to be confident that world opinion supports Mrs. Thatcher's stand.

Two of the three southerners who visited Sands recently -- Sile de Valera and Neil Blaney of Donegal, are ultranationalists. If they find widespread support in Ireland for the Sands cause, Mr. Haughey could be forced to choose between anti-British actions he doesn't want -- or defeat at the polls.

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