Tense Northern Ireland braces for aftermath of Sands hunger strike

Supermarket shelves were emptied of bread and baby food in a wave of panic buying. Pubs, shops, and homes fell silent to hear radio news bulletins on the hour.

City buses were hastily evacuated from three main Belfast depots to try to prevent them from being burned or overturned.

This was the public mood of alarm here as the Pope's personal secretary, Msgr. John Magee, failed to convince Bobby Sands, a convicted leader of the Provincial wing of the illegal Irish Republican Army, to call off his two-month-old hunger strike. British officials repeated their refusal to grant IRA prisoners political status.

Protestant leader, the Rev. Ian Paisley, warned of an impending "war" when Mr. Sands dies. Catholics and Protestants alike feared frightening new IRA violence to mark his death.

Yet, behind the ancient stone battlements of Stormont Castle, seat of the British government in Northern Ireland, the mood was one of calm confidence that the expected violence could be contained.

The chief constable and the officer commanding the 11,000 British troops here , were portrayed to this correspondent as convinced they had enough men and equipment to keep violence from spreading beyond defined and patrolled areas.

Lines of demarcation between Protestant and Roman Catholic areas in West Belfast have been fortified with gray sheets of corrugated iron, rows of barbed wire, concrete blocks, and iron fences.

They are ugly to look at, but they help the Army and police keep rival factions apart.

Army posts are set up behind iron barricades. Observation and sniper posts in dark gray concrete pillboxes loom above. Green and brown Army Saracen armored cars patrol constantly, troops inside holding automatic rifles.

To one seeing it all for the first time, as well as to most local people, it is a grim and tragic scene.

Many Protestants fear it is not enough. Mr. Paisley calls for reinforcements. Catholics I spoke to in the Falls, Springmartin, and Andersontown areas doubted the Army could prevent new death and destruction.

Inside Stormont Castle, a well-placed British official emphasized the reasons why London won't compromise with IRA demands.

"The Provisional IRA," he said, "wants the British government out of Northern Ireland altogether. It wants to push us out by trying to prove that the province is ungovernable. Its aim then is to turn the same violence against Dublin and eventually to establish a workers' socialist republic in all of Ireland.

"This is not realistic," he said. "But the Provisionals are not realistic people."

It is estimated here that the Provisionals have no more than 250 men ready to take to the streets with guns and bombs. But that is more than enough to keep terrorism going. With about 300 television, press, and radio reporters from around the world gathered in Belfast, the government felt the IRA would do all it could to stir up new violence after Mr. Sands' funeral. At this writing, Sands was said to be lucid but extremely weak after 60 days without eating.

The IRA is using his hunger strike to dramatize its conviction that the crimes it commits are justified by a political cause -- a united Ireland.

British officials reply that the concept of "political prisoner" does not exist under British law. Mr. sands and 40 other IRA prisoners in the Maze prison outside Belfast are criminals under the law.

If they conform to prison rules, officials say, they have the right to wear the new civilian-style slacks, shirts, and sweaters that now constitute Maze prison clothing. They would also be able to wear their own clothes after prison working hours.

But the Thatcher government is adamant that it will not be blackmailed into granting what the IRA wants -- the right to wear their own clothing in the Maze at all times, the right not to work, the right to associate freely with each other at all times within the prison, and the automatic right, extended to other prisoners in Northern Ireland, to have their sentences reduced by half for "good behavior."

"It is out of the question," say British officials, "for any prisoner to tell prison authorities how their prison will be run. If Mr. Sands wants to die, that is his affair." The IRA hoped the British would not take ths attitude after Mr. Sands' recent election to the British Parliament, but their hope now appea rs to have been in vain.

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