A 10th hunger striker died in Belfast's Maze Prison hospital early today, one hour after voting started in a tense Northern Ireland by-election made necessary by the death of the first Irish nationalist hunger striker, Bobby Sands.
The death of Michael Devine, 27, who had refused food for 60 days, appeared likely to affect the contest for the Parliament seat in the Fermanagh and South Tyrone areas on the border with the Irish Republic, improving the chances of anti-British candidate Owen Carron, political analysts said.
Meanwhile, violence exploded in other parts of Northern Ireland in reaction to Devine's death, United Press International reported. A British soldier was shot and wounded in a flurry of gunfire in Belfast, and in both Belfast and Londonderry, rioters hijacked and burned vehicles and tossed hundreds of molotov cocktails at police. Police replied by firing plastic bullets.
In another development, relatives authorized medical treatment for another of the hunger strikers, Pat McGeown, on the 42nd day of his fast when his condition worsened through "unforeseen, serious and distressing complications," the Northern Ireland Office said, according to UPI. It was not immediately clear if McGeown had abandoned his fast.
Carron, 28, an unemployed teacher, is hoping to win the seat left vacant by Sands, the Irish Republican Army member who was elected on April 9 while serving 14 years in the Maze Prison for criminal offenses. Sands died in May after 66 days of a hunger strike in the section of the prison reserved for terrorist offenses and called the "H-block."
Six candidates were running in the by-election, but the contest was basically between "anti-H block" candidate Carron, who was Sands' election manager and describes himself as a "proxy political prisoner," and Protestant Kenneth Maginnis of the Unionist Party, which favors continued union with Britain.
Although Maginnis and some of the other candidates have attempted to raise bread-and-butter issues such as jobs and education, Carron has campaigned solely on the strike.
Observers saw the election, whose results are expected by Friday evening, as a verdict on the British government's refusal to give in to the hunger strikers' demands and a crucial test for the power of the IRA, which backs the strike.
Voters arriving at the 47 stations across the huge constituency found booths heavily guarded by police and troops who had been called in to ensure tight security. Some polling stations flew black flags -- synonymous with support for the IRA.
A 90 percent turnout was expected in the district, which has 73,000 voters and a Catholic majority of 5,000.
Fermanagh and South Tyrone compose a constituency set in picture-postcard country of rolling hills and peaceful lakes -- a sharp contrast to the bitter feelings generated by the campaign and the area's record of bloody violence.
Since the start of the conflict in Northern Ireland, 104 people have been killed there.
Maginnis, a former major in the government's Ulster Defense Regiment, based his platform on the need for better security in the area.
"A vote for Owen Carron is a vote for the IRA," said Maginnis. "If he represents the Roman Catholic community, then this community has no hope left."
Carron conducted an emotional and flamboyant campaign, driving around in a pink bus with a team of young men and women wearing T-shirts proclaiming "vote Carron, the prisoners' candidate." He was joined by relatives of dead hunger strikers, including Sands' young brother Sean.
Carron talked about British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher's "cruel and hated regime."
"Vote for me and give Mrs. Thatcher a kick in the teeth," he urged constituents. "Vote for me and vote for the prisoners."
Carron said that if he won, he would not take his seat in Westminster until the government met the hunger strikers' demands for treatment as political prisoners.
He refused to say whether he belonged to the Provisional Sinn Fein, the political wing of the IRA, but he is widely linked to the group.