Irish nationalist prisoners in British-ruled Northern Ireland today ended a seven-month campaign of hunger strikes, during which 10 prisoners died and worldwide attention refocused on the increasingly violent sectarian strife in the province.
The last six convicted Provisional Irish Republican Army terrorists to refuse food in Ulster's Maze Prison, outside Belfast, began accepting nourishment this afternoon. In a statement released by their supporters, the prisoners said they "reluctantly decided to end the fast" because of intervention by their families under pressure from Irish Roman Catholic churchmen and politicians.
Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, awakened with the news at 1 a.m. in Australia, where she is attending a Commonwealth conference, "is delighted that the hunger strike has ended," said a spokesman at 10 Downing Street here. "She has been deeply distressed at the loss of young lives inside and outside the prison."
Although officials here are reportedly under instructions "not to crow" about the protesters' capitulation, it will undoubtedly be claimed as a victory for Thatcher in her refusal to comprimise. But the government faces costs in damage done to British prestige abroad and to the search for a peaceful solution to the problems of British rule in Northern Ireland.
The hunger strike and Thatcher's unyielding response have further alienated Ulster's Catholic Irish nationalist minority from both the British government and the Protestant, British-loyalist majority.
The prisoners were told this week that all the hunger strikers' relatives, encouraged by Catholic clergy, had decided to authorize emergency treatment to keep them alive if they did not give up their first voluntarily. Seven other prisoners already had been removed from the hunger strike by relatives during the past two months, and none had died since Aug. 20, when Michael Devine, 27, a member of the Irish National Liberation Army, a splinter terrorist group, succumbed after 60 days.
This had greatly reduced the protest's pressure on the British government, a Belfast spokesman for Provisional Sinn Fein, the political arm of the Provisional IRA, said yesterday as the prisioners reassessed the hunger strike. "In order for pressure to be maintained, as cold as it may seem, prisoners have to die," said Provisioner Sinn Fein spokesman Richard McAuley. "A hunger strike involves men dying."
In a statement Provisional Sinn Fein said had been smuggled out of the Maze, the prisoners complained they had been "robbed of the hunger strike" as an effective protest weapon through pressure put on their families by the Catholic church and Irish Catholic politicians. They reaffirmed their commitment to win their demands from the British government, but did not specify how.
Provisional Sinn Fein spokesman Danny Morrison said several hundred Irish nationalist prisoners would continue their protest by refusing prison work or clothes, wearing blankets instead. Morrison said they also "have not foresworn the hunger strike as a weapon" in the future.
The strike was the latest in a long series of such protests by convicted Irish nationalist terrorists imprisoned in Ulster who have demanded to be treated as political rather criminal prisoners because, they say, they are fighting a guerrilla war against British rule there. Thatcher's government refused to give the prisoners special status, concede any of their five demands for specific changes in prison conditions, or negotiate with them "under duress" of the strike.
But, in response to pressure from Irish Catholic churchmen, moderate Ulster Catholic politicians and the government of the neighboring Republic of Ireland, British officials have indicated they will make further improvements in conditions for all inmates, including allowing them to wear their own clothes, and restore privileges lost by the protesting prisoners after all protest are ended.
"I and my predecessors have always made clear that further developments of the prison regime will be possible once duress is removed," Britain's new Northern Ireland secretary, James Prior, said tonight.
A leader of Irish Catholic supporters of the prisoners, Bernadette Devlin McAliskey, cried when she heard the news at a Dublin meeting of leaders in the hunger strike campaign. "The fight for the prisoners' demands will go on," she said. "We shall mount an international campaingn to continue it."
"Far from discrediting our cause," the Maze prisoners said in their statement, "British intransigence, which created the hunger strike, has given us international political recognition, and has made the cause of Irish freedom an international issue."
The protest attracted international attention when 27-year-old convicted IRA terrorist Bobby Sands was elected to the British Parliament from Ulster while on hunger strike. Three weeks later, on May 5, he became the first hunger striker to die, having starved himself for 66 days. Later, another hunger, striker, 25-year-old Kieran Doherty, was elected to Ireland's parliament before becoming the eighth to die, on Aug. 2.
Deaths of hunger strikers from May to August prompted violet rioting in Catholic neighborhoods, increasing bitterness there against British troops and Ulster police who battled molotov cocktail-throwing youths with plastic bullets that killed several people. Irish nationalist terrorists also stepped up their shooting and bombing attacks on security forces and businesses, killing 40 of the 64 people, besides the 10 prisoners, who died during the period of hunger strikes.
Anti-British protest demonstrations in sympathy with the hunger strikers have been held around the world, and the flow of money from Irish-Americans to the IRA has greatly increased.
The first break in the unity of the hunger strikers and their relatives came a few days before Doherty's death, when the mother of Patrick Quinn, 29, authorized emergency treatment to save his life after he lapsed into a coma on the 47th day of his fast. Two more hunger strikers died after that, but six others were either rescued by relatives or gave up their fast.
This week, an assistnat Maze Prison chaplain, the Rev. Denis Faul, who has been close to the protesting prisoners and their relatives, met with relatives of five of the remaining hunger strikers in Belfast last Sunday. He said later they all decided to intervene if necessary to save the prisoners' lives.
The relatives then met with the new British official in charge of Northern Ireland's prisons, Lord Gowrie, who reportedly reassured the relatives that officials would be as flexible as possible once the protest ended.
Prior said that if the strike ended, Gowrie, was ready to go into the prison and "set the record straight" by explaining all this to the protesting prisoners.
These moves are being seen as evidence of a fresh approach to the province's problems by Prior, a senior member of Thatcher's Conservative government.
Prior and hid protoge Gowrie, who is Irish-born, have emphasized they will focus on severe economic and social problems in the province and the increased polarization.
The new Irish government of Prime Minister Garret FitzGerald also has been taking a fresh approach to Northern Ireland, increasing its condemnation of Irish nationalist terrorism and exploring the possibility of making changes in the Irish constitution to reduce the influence of the Roman Catholic church and make Irish unity more appealing to Ulster Protestants.