Despite statements from the Provisional Sinn Fein that the hunger strikes at the Maze prison near Belfast will continue, the British government may be on the way to a victory in this crucial battle of wills.
Two more hunger strikers have been brought off the fast by their families, and the Irish National Liberation Army (INLA) -- which announced that it would not put any more of its men on the fast in the near future -- unwittingly gave a clue to the morale within the militant republican movement. It said that the British government was being "far more intransigent" than had at first been expected.
Since March 1, when the late Bobby Sands embarked on his fast, the British and the militant republicans have been eyeball-to-eyeball in a confrontation that has captured the attention of the world's press, radio, and television.
The Provisional wing of the illegal Irish Republican Army (IRA) and the INLA, a militant offshoot, have demanded five reforms which, in the government's opinion, add up to political or noncriminal status. The republicans have dropped their demand for special status but the British feel that this is still the main objective.
The government has offered limited reforms if the hunger strikes end. The prisoners will not end the fasts until they are convinced that the government will keep its word on the reforms. Officially, therefore, the deadlock remains.
One crucial factor that will alter the strategy of the republican struggle is the attitude of the prisoners' relatives. On July 31, Catherine Quinn asked doctors to save the life of her son Patrick, then on the 47th day of his fast. He is still taking solid foods. The relatives of Patrick McGeown asked for medical intervention after 42 days. And last weekend Matt Devlin and Laurence McKeown were taken off the fast in similar circumstances after 52 and 70 days, respectively.
(Another prisoner, Brendan McLaughlin, abandoned his fast on May 14, ironically because he was suffering from an illness and it was felt that he could not sustain a lengthy hunger-strike.)
Provisional Sinn Fein and republican activists met on Sept. 6 to review their tactics, and indicated that other prissoners would replace those who come off the fast. But the INLA, which has 28 men in the H-blocks, struck a note of grim reality by deciding not to continue to put forward one member for every three Provisionals. They concluded that if this ratio were continued "all our prisoners will be dead within six months."
The republican leadership has consistently refused to order the men to end their fasts and argues that it is up to the prisoners. But since the prisoners themselves are not in a position to make rational decisions as their hunger strikes progress, the role of the relatives becomes vital. Some will not interfere, but it is likely that others will follow the example of those who intervened.
At present there are six men on hunger strikes, though the intention is to have eight fasting at any one time.
The other important factor is the consistent and hardening opposition of the Roman Catholic Church. The Rev. Denis Faul, a chaplain at the Maze and a supporter of the anti-H-blocks campaign, has again called on the IRA to end the fasts, and on the British to resume talks. He also noted that John Pickering, who started his fast on Sept. 7, was in poor health, and said that the hunger strikers must be coming "near the bottom of the barrel" if a man in such a poor condition was allowed to join the protest.
Meanwhile a leading Catholic bishop, Cathal Daly, called for an end to the hunger strikes and condemned the "sick charade of guns and volleys fired over head bodies at funerals." He also condemned the shooting of two British soldiers who were lured into an IRA trap by two young women last weekend, saying "English hearts hurt just as sorely as Irish hearts and Protestant tears are no different in color to Catholic tears."
A third factor working against the Provisionals' prison campaign is their continued violence on the streets. While they bomb, shoot, and destroy, their case for "humanitarian" treatment seems less and less credible.
Last weekend police warned the people of Northern Ireland to be on guard against a new Provisional bomb blitz -- perhaps an indication that the more militant members of the republican movement were moving to the ascendency after a period of neopolitical activity under the H-blocks guise.
The one certainty about Ulster is that the unexpected happens, and it would be premature to write off the entire H-blocks campaign. However, it does seem that the British government and the steely Mrs. Thatcher can point to some movement on the other side.
But after six months of increased bitterness and violence in Northern Ireland and the worldwide publicity, there can be no winners in this confrontation.