Convicted Irish Republican Army terrorist Joe McDonnell died this morning after refusing food for 61 days after it appeared that mediators were near achieving a settlement to stop the four-month-old hunger strike that has now claimed five lives.
Britain's Northern Ireland Office announced the death in a terse statement that said McDonnell, 30, "took his own life by refusing food and medical attention for 61 days" at 5:11 a.m. (12:11 a.m. EDT). The announcement came more than two hours after McDonnell's death.
McDonnell, who is survived by a wife and two children, was serving a 14-year sentence for illegal weapons possession.
The death came after sources close to negotiations to end the protest by IRA prisoners in British-ruled Northern Ireland said the British government had decided to send an official into the Maze Prison outside Belfast to read a statement outlining changes the government has agreed to make in the prison regime.
This appeared to break a deadlock over which side would move first to implement a settlement worked out by the five mediators from the Irish Commission for Justice and Peace of the Roman Catholic Church in the Republic of Ireland to the south of Ulster.
The British official still had not gone into the Maze when McDonnell's death was announced, and it was not unclear why not. In a statement to reporters shortly before midnight last night, the chairman of the Irish church commission, Brian Gallagher, said that the settlement was a race against time with McDonnell near death.
The prisoners had insisted that an official appear in the prison to guarantee that the government would make the promised changes in prison conditions. Government officials had said yesterday that nothing more could be done until the prisoners first ended their fast.
This sticking point, according to sources, had prevented the mediators from making a statement of their own this afternoon in Belfast outlining what the government had proposed, and the prisoners were reported to have accepted. The dispute over whether or not a government official would go into the Maze to talk to the prisoners followed a final meeting between the mediators and government officials in Belfast Monday night.
British sources confirmed yesterday that at the four-hour meeting the mediators presented a draft statement for settling the hunger strike to the British officials, headed by Michael Allison, the minister in charge of prisons in Northern Ireland.
British officials have contended that the prisoners could trust the government to make the discussed changes because it has carried out numerous other steps to liberalize the prison regime in Northern Ireland during the last two years. Only continuation of the hunger strike, British sources said, was stopping the government from beginning immediately to make more improvements.
Sources said the proposed changes include allowing prisoners to wear their own clothes at all times, to visit each other during leisure hours for longer periods in larger numbers, and to substitute education programs, vocational training projects, handiwork for charity and construction of additional prison facilities for traditional industrial prison work. Prisoners ending their protest also would be eligible for expanded mail and visitor privileges and restoration of some of the lost time off for good behavior, according to the sources.
These proposals have been generally accepted by the hunger strikers, the more than 400 other convicted nationalist terrorists in the Maze and other militants, sources said.