Ulster gets time to catch its breath

With about six weeks to go before the next wave of IRA hunger-strikers reach a critical point in their fasts, this province has a sort of gruesome breather. But there is as yet no sign of a break in the deadlock or test of wills between the British government and the Provisional wing of the illegal Irish Republican Army.

And the emotion and violence which surrounded the deaths of the first four IRA hunger-strikers has divided Northern Ireland even more visibly than before.

The Provisionals are sticking to their five demands -- including the right to free association within the prison and the right not to wear prison clothes or do prison work.The British insist that this amounts to a demand for political (noncriminal status) and British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher refuses to give way.

The European Commission on Human Rights has announced that it will resume its investigation into allegations lodged by four other IRA prisoners in 1978. These allegations concerned prisoners' letters and are not central in the present dispute. But some observers still hope that the commission could play a part in trying to resolve the present deadlock.

It is unlikely, however, that the republican movement would be willing to give way on its demands, even for an arbitrator like the European Commission. Instead, they are looking ahead to the June 11 elections in the Irish Republic as a useful vehicle for further publicity and propaganda about their demands.

Recent statements from prominent Ulster churchmen illustrate how the prison hunger-strike issue is polarizing opinion here.

Tomas Cardinal O'Fiaich, leader of Ireland's Roman Catholics, has warned that "if the [British] government continues its rigid stance on prison dress and work it will ultimately be faced with the wrath of the whole nationalist population."

But Arthur Butler, the Protestant Bishop of Connor, has declared bluntly that he supports the British stand and that the IRA leaders must realize they were not going to win.

The polarization is further confirmed by the results of last week's elections for 26 local councils. The Rev. Ian Paisley's uncompromisingly loyalist (loyal to union with Britain) Democratic Unionist Party doubled its representation. It took 142 seats, just nine fewer than the once all-powerful and more moderate Official Unionists.

The mainly Roman Catholic Social Democratic and Labour Party did well to hold 104 seats, just nine fewer than in 1977 -- despite the opposition from critics who are unhappy with the treatment of the IRA prison inmates.

The moderate Alliance Party, not surprisingly in these circumstances, did badly. It slumped from 70 seats to 38, thus demontrating that the middle ground has disappeared even further.

Two of the saddest casualties were Gerry Fitt and Paddy Devlin, both Catholics and former stalwarts of the Social Democrats. Both were also former members of the province's one and only power-sharing (between Protestant and Catholic) provincial government, itself toppled by loyalist opposition in 1974.

Mr. Devlin just scraped into the Belfast City Council, this time with a reduced majority. He said later that he was forced to flee from his home by republican intimidation.

Mr. Fitt, a member of the Belfast council for 23 years, lost his seat due to his opposition to the hunger strikes. Fitt, a gutsy politician with a reputation for survival, said gloomily after his defeat, "I made it clear that a vote for me was a vote against the gunman."

Clearly the shadow of a gunman continues to loom large over a province where confrontation now looks more likely than compromise.And over the past two weeks or more, other volunteers have taken the places of the four who died. In their fasts for roughly two weeks so far, they have about six weeks before t heir condition becomes critical.

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