The death of hunger striker Francis Hughes at the Maze Prison near Belfast and the willingness of scores of other Republicans to die in similar circumstances herald a major test of nerve between the British and the Provisional wing of the illegal Irish Republican Army (IRA) in the weeks ahead.
The IRA strategy is to minimize the violence and to apply political pressure on the British. They seek political (noncriminal status) and they believe that the deaths of hunger strikers will win them more sympathy. Their tactics are to harden Irish Republican and world opinion against the British, who, they feel, can be made to appear "inflexible" over IRA demands for prison reform.
The British have held firm. They point out that the real issue is not reforms but the granting of special status to terrorists. They believe that they can rely on widespread international support on this issue at a time when terrorism knows no boundaries.
There is no sign that the Provisionals will waver. Francis Hughes, who died a week after Bobby Sands, was facing a life sentence for murder and other serious crimes. Raymond McCreesh from the Provisionals, and Patrick O'Hara, from a splinter group, the Irish National Liberation Army, are on the 53rd day of their fast. The IRA says another 70 prisoners are ready to follow these men.
Irish Prime Minister Charles J. Haughey continues to demonstrate agile political footwork. He does not want to alienate British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, with whom he has fostered a special relationship in the hope of gaining for Dublin a greater say in an Ulster settlement.
He also has demonstrated that the basic issue is not prison reform but the whole future of Northern Ireland. "The tragic events of recent weeks have confirmed once more that Northern Ireland as at present constituted is no longer a viable political entity," he stated.
Mrs. Thatcher has said repeatedly that the British will not break the link so long as the majority in Northern Ireland choose to remain British. Ulster's 1 million Protestants see the hunger strikes as a test of British nerve in standing up to IRA violence and moral blackmail. Any weakening by Mrs. Thatcher could lead to a loyalist backlash.
Hughe's death was followed by rioting in Belfast and Londonderry. One man was shot dead in an exchange with troops in west Belfast.