Pressure from families saying that their sons are being forced into suicide by Irish nationalist leaders is now the British government's best hope that the long hunger strike at the Maze prison in Belfast will soon end.
Following a weekend that saw the death of two hunger strikers demanding recognition as political prisoners, Margaret Thatcher's government has begun to focus on what appears to be a significant split in the stern nationalist facade.
The parents of a third hunger striker intervened, asking that everything be done to save his life.
Their move, believed to reflect a growing parental belief that prisoners are being manipulated by officers of the Provisional wing of the illegal Irish Republican Army (IRA), has buttressed British government hopes that a psychological turning point in the struggle at the Maze may have arrived.
The parents' intervention drew strong support from the Roman Catholic Bishop of Derry, who appealed to other relatives to "take courage" from the decision of the family of hunger striker Patrick Quinn.
The death Sunday night of Kieran Doherty after 73 days without food followed within 24 hours of Kevin Lynch's passing.
Since Doherty was elected in June to the Dail (parliament), a new by-election in the Republic of Ireland now must take place.
That will create problems for Irish Prime Minister Garret FitzGerald, whose coalition government hangs by a thread in parliament. But for Mrs. Thatcher, optimism that Britain's tough tactics at the Maze are winning through is beginning to rise.
London and Belfast officials are noting that public demonstrations following the deaths of Doherty and Lynch were shortlived. British sources are suggesting that after eight hunger-strike deaths, the political impact of the protests is diminishing.
Britain has been given breathing space by Dr. FitzGerald's decision to ease pressure on London to reach a compromise with the IRA over the Maze hunger strike.
Dr. FitzGerald originally demanded concessions by Britain but then switched his position, noting that the Ira was trying to make political capital out of the plight of the hunger strikers.
Intervention by Mr. Quinn's family came unexpectedly, and was quickly interpreted in Whitehall as proof of what officials had suspected -- that parents and other relatives are beginning to doubt the wisdom of the hunger strike and its efficacy in extracting concessions from the British government.
Sources close to the IRA said Maze prisoners were unshaken by the removal of Quinn out of the Maze and into a nearby hospital.
The British government is taking pains to appear unruffled by the tragedies at the Maze, describing the deaths as suicides. In fact, it is easier for Mrs. Thatcher to adopt a stolid posture at this season. Parliament has gone into summer recess, and with little or no pressure being exerted from Dublin, there is a belief that given another period of firmness in the face of the hunger strike, more parents will step in and insist that the lives of their sons be spared.