Supporters of the four Irish Republicans on hunger strike at the Maze Prison near Belfast are to intensify their political campaign after the death of former British member of Parliament and hunger striker Bobby Sands.
There are two reasons for the move:
1. They regard the worldwide publicity given to Sands and his cause as a major propaganda victory.
2. They know that Northern Ireland is likely to stay in the headlines as the condition of three of the four current hunger-strikers continues to worsen.
Francis Hughes, serving a life sentence for murdering a soldier, is now on the 59th day of his fast and he is losing his sight, speech, and hearing. Hughes' brother Oliver estimated May 10 that he had less than a week to live. Medical experts say that he could survive until after next weekend.
Confirmation of an intensified political campaign was given after a daylong meeting of the H-block committee May 10. The plotted tactics following Sands' death and produced several new lines of approach. They asked Irish Prime Minister Charles J. Haughey to expel the British ambassador; to withdraw troops from the border; and to sever diplomatic links with Britain.
Such demands were destined to catch the headlines rather than to provide a realistic assessment of how far the Irish would try to force the British to negotiate with the IRA for an H-block solution. So far Premier Haughey has tried to foster what he regards as his special relationship with British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher on Anglo-Irish affairs. He has contented himself by hinting at greater involvement by the European Commission of Human Rights in the H-block issue (so named because of shape of the prison's cellblock.)
His call has been echoed by Dr. Garret Fitzgerald, leader of the Irish opposition party Fine Gael, and by John Hume, the leader of the mainly Catholic Social Democratic and Labour Party in the north. Mr. Hume, a soft-spoken former teacher from Londonderry, has considerable influence among southern politicians.He suggests that the British solve the H-block crisis by showing more flexibility. He believes the British should allow prisoners to wear their own clothes, and that they should allow greater association among prisoners. He insists a solution can be found without loss of face.
The British view is that the prisoners want nothing less than political (noncriminal status) and the government is holding firm. The British also fear that any concessions to the Republicans could trigger off a backlash of violence from Northern Ireland's loyalists, already edgy at what they regard to be the overwhelming publicity given to Sands and his supporters. On May 10 the loyalist Northern Ireland Defense Association, paraded 100 men in Londonderry in a "show of strength."
At this time of writing a compromise between the government and the provisional IRA seems most unlikely, despite the worsening condition of three hunger strikers. The H-block activists have also announced further political measures likely to catch the headlines at a time of continuing world interest in Irish affairs. They will picket any Catholic candidates in the May 20 local government elections in Northern Ireland who have not declared support for the prisoners. They also plan to put forward their own candidates in the forthcoming general election in the republic. To assure maximum publicity the H-block supporters will field candidates to stand against former cabinet ministers and current party leaders in the rep ublic.