Both the British government and imprisoned Irish nationalist hunger strikers in British-ruled Northern Ireland appeared ready today to give ground in their impasse over prison rules in an effort to head off further starvation deaths among inmates.
A Roman Catholic group in the Republic of Ireland, the Irish Commission for Justice and Peace, met with British officials and the hunger strikers amid signs that both sides had modified their positions in response to the commission's intervention. The commission is a group of clergy and lay people affiliated with the Irish Catholic Bishops' Conference.
British officials said the government is willing to make further modifications in prison conditions in Northern Ireland if the hunger strike is ended. They suggested the European Human Rights Commission as an arbitrator of prisoners' complaints.
A statement made on behalf of the prisoners, markedly more consiliatory than earlier statements, said that there is no need for either side to lose a point of principle and that there is still plenty of room for maneuver.
The statement reiterated the prisoners' original five demands, but dropped language in previous statements also demanding treatment as political rather than criminal prisoners. Instead, the statement said the prisoners were seeking changes for all prisoners in Northern Ireland.
Time is running short, however. After an interval of six weeks since the deaths of the first four hunger strikers, Joe McDonnell, 30, a member of the outlawed Provisional Irish Republican Army serving a 14-year sentence for illegal possession of arms, lies near death after refusing food for 57 days. He is reported to be having extreme difficulty hearing and seeing. He was given last rites of the Catholic Church Thursday.
Seven other hunger strikers are expected to die at one- or two-week intervals in the next two months if the protest does not end.
Until recent days, there had been little sign of movement away from the longstanding deadlock between the demands of convicted Irish nationalist terrorists in Northern Ireland for changes in prison conditions, including their insistence that they be treated as political prisoners, and the refusal by the British government to grant them that status or give up any of its control of the prison.
British sources said Michael Allison, a government minister responsible for Northern Ireland, told members of the Irish church commission today that the government still would not negotiate with the prisoners and must remain in control of the prison regime.
But the sources also emphasized the government's willingness to make some changes, particularly if suggested by the European Human Rights Commission, if the prisoners end their hunger strike.
"We are not left with a great deal of room for maneuver," said one source, "but we wish to get it settled."
Some of the hunger strikers and their relatives also have been reported to be more receptive to compromise now, although suspicious of promises. A bigger question is the attitude of leaders of other convicted Irish nationalist terrorists inside the prison and their supporters outside, who have remained publicly hostile to settlement for anything less than the prisoners' original demands.
Efforts to reach a settlement, begun by suggestions for compromise by the Irish church commission last month, intensified with a day-long meeting yesterday between commission members and British officials headed by Allison at Hillsborough Castle, three miles from the Maze Prison outside Belfast where relatives, priests, lawyers and representatives of the commission have been in contact with the hunger strikers.
At the same time, relatives of the hunger strikers met for three hours in Dublin with the new Irish prime minister, Garret FitzGerald, who also consulted on the problem with both the Irish church commission and the British ambassador to Ireland. The commission then met with British officials and the hunger strikers today.
The five specific demands made by the prisoners are that they be allowed to wear their own clothes at all times, be exempted from required prison work, be allowed to associate freely with other prisoners, receive more mail and visitors, and regain the time off for good behavior that they have lost during their protest.
The Irish church commission suggested publicly last month that a compromise settlement be built on allowing the prisoners to wear their own clothes, increasing opportunities for freer association while not allowing paramilitary groupings or training, and reviewing the question of prison work to "ensure that the work is of the greatest possible cultural and educational value and that no work of a demeaning nature is demanded."
The commission also called on the prisoners "to contribute towards the resolution of this issue by making it clear that the proposals on clothing, association and work which we have outlined would, if implemented, provide the avenue for a solution."
British officials first criticized the suggestion as being unlikely to resolve the prisoners' overriding desire to be treated as political rather than criminal prisoners. Informed sources said the government also was concerned about the reaction of Protestant loyalists to a compromise, at a time of high tension in Northern Ireland, and about possible erosion of the government's authority inside the prison.
But this week, Britain's Northern Ireland secretary, Humphrey Atkins, made public a long statement detailing steps taken in the past to liberalize conditions for all prisoners in Northern Ireland and indicating areas where modifications could be made or considered in the future.
Atkins reiterated that mail and visitor privileges for conforming prisoners already are more generous that what the protestants have demanded, some remission time has been restored to other prisoners who ended their protests, prisoners may wear their own clothes in leisure time and prison-issued civilian clothes during work hours, supervised association among groups of prisoners already exists, and prisoners have some choice, with the final decision made by the authorities, among various kinds of industrial work, housekeeping chores and educational and training progrms.
He added that greater flexibility could be introduced in the choice of "prison activity" and in rules for group association. But he said control of these would have to remain ultimately with the authorities and no group of prisoners could be treated differently from others.
Atkins was silent about the possibility of any further changes on clothing. Outsiders have contended that this issue should be the easiest to resolve because the prisoners already wear their own clothes much of the time. But it has been a symbol for prison authorities of maintaining control.
Atkins contended that "the Northern Ireland prison regime is generous, and has and will be administered flexibly by the authorities" and added that "there is scope for yet further development." But he said this would take time and "cannot proceed further while the hunger strike places the authorities under duress."
An answer purportedly smuggled out of the Maze from leaders of the Irish nationalist prisoners said they would not "submit to such an ambiguous and distorting statement . . . vaguely guaranteeing unspecified further development of the prison regime at some unspecified time in the future."
A lengthy statement on behalf of the hunger strikers today said they were not seeking special treatment and would not be sacrificing principle if the changes they demand were made for all prisoners.
They said they were willing to perform maintenance work in their cell blocks, for example, and to confine their association with other prisoners to their own cell blocks, under supervision. They said they were not asking to be allowed to do as they pleased in prison.
They said these changes would not erode any of the authorities' control of the prison and had not been completely understood by British officials. However, they continued to request direct negotiations with the government. Officials made clear today that no such negotiations would occur.
They suggested that some of the hunger strikers and their relatives also had indicated willingness to compromise, but that militant Irish nationalists outside the prison, particularly the Provisional Irish Republican Army, were resisting it. The British have contended that the hunger strike and sympathy it has aroused is an important propaganda and recruiting tool for the IRA.
This has been denied by the hunger strikers' supporters, organized as "H-Block" committees, named for the shape of Maze Prison cell buildings. Gerry Adams, a leader of Provisional Sinn Fein, the political arm of the Provisional IRA, said the British were acting, "on the false premise that the hunger strikers are in some way manipulated from the outside."