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Cardinal Hume's pastoral letter on the hunger strike at the Maze has led to speculation about a serious split between the bishops of England and Ireland. Are such rumours justified and what is their effect? JOHN CAREY reports.
AN AIR of desperation is beginning to creep into discussions about the hunger strike at the Maze prison which goes into its fifth week on Monday. The sense that little if anything can be done about the crisis has led to dangerous oversimplifications of the attitudes of some of those most closely involved, notably Cardinal omas 0 Fiaich and Bishop Edward Daly.
Cardinal Hume's pastoral letter at the weekend effectively pleading with the strikers to call off their action has been widely interpreted as showing a split between the English and Irish hierarchies. It follows the speech in the House of Commons last week by Mr Gerry Fitt, the Social Democratic and Labour Party
Mr Fin said then: "I have newspaper cuttings relating to Cardinal 0 Fiaich and Bishop Edward Daly, which appear to show them on the side of the hunger strikers. Archbishop Armstroeg, the Protestant Primate. tells the people of Northern Ireland of the terrible conditions in which the Protestants of the border countries are forced to live as a result of the campaign of assassination waged against / them over past years. The Protestant archbishop is apparently on one side and a Catholic cardinal on the other. That can only be disastrous for the people of Northern Ireland," He went on to strongly criticise Cardinal 0 Eiaich, saying that "he has not had a good effect on this controversy" and that "the Unionist population in Northern Ireland believes that Cardinal 0 Fiaich is in political sympathy with the ideals of the hunger strikers." Subsequently Mr Fitt accused the cardinal of "close identification" with the strikers. He was less harsh in his Commons treatment of Bishop Daly, whom he said he believed was "motivated by the best intentions."
The speech a brave one for a man in Mr Fitt's position — was seized on by the media as an attack on the Republican sympathies of Cardinal 0 Fiaich.
When Cardinal Hume published his pastoral letter a few days later the two statements were bracketed together and held up to he in sharp contrast to the position adopted by the two Irish Catholic bishops.
What went unmentioned was the fact that Cardinal Hume specifically asked for prayers for "my fellow cardinal and friend, and the bishops of Ireland whose very real pastoral concern in a sensitive and complex-situation is well known to me from my many contacts with them."
It is clearly wrong to say that Cardinal 0 Fiaich has "identified" with the strikers. Immediately before the strike began he appealed to them to call it off and before that both he and Bishop Daly had spent many long hours attempting to find an acceptable solution to the impasse. Their efforts have included several meetings with Mr Humphrey Atkins, the Ulster Secretary.
They have, it is true, been critical of the British government, most recently last month when they accused the Northern Ireland Office of bungling the so-called clothing eoncession which turned out in their view to be no real concession at all.
The problem facing the authorities now, of course, is the same as it has been all along — namely that the striking prisoners know that whatever happens they will win: if the government makes any concessions at this stage they can claim it as at least a partial victory; if it doesn't, and one or more of them die, more martyrs and therefore more strength will be added to the Republican cause.
The hunger strike has been a Republican weapon for 60 years, since the day when Terence McSweeney died killer 74 days on strike in Brixton gaol. A similar strike in 1972 prompted the decision by Mr William Whitelaw, then the Ulster Secretary, to introduce
the Maze prison pictured in special category status for convicted members of paramilitary organisations.
This time, however, there is no indication that the government intends to give way. Nevertheless its concern about the possible repercussions of the present "dirty protest" was underlined by the publication three weeks ago of a special booklet called "H-Block, the facts".
The booklet concludes: "It is not the Government's ss ish that the protesting prisoners should continue to endure their present conditions, conditions which they themselves have created. But the choice rests with them and perhaps even more with those who influence them and their families from outside prison."
It stresses that the prisoners convicted of terrorist offences are allowed notmal medical facilities and meals, exercise, hooks and newspapers. It also strongly denies allegations of systematic brutality against prisoners invblved in the "dirty protest" and draws attention to the rejection of such allegations by the European Commission of Human Rights.
It does not. however, mention the -Commission's expression of concern about the (iovernment's "iellexible approach" or the charge. contained in the Commission's decision. that the authorities were "concerned more to punish offenders against prison discipline than to explore ways of resolving such a serious deadlock."
More than two months ago the Irish Justice and Peace Commission submitted a statement to Mr Atkins saying: "If there is to he movement towards peace, there must be a recognition that in many such instances. no absolute principle is in olved and that cornpromise with honour is possible."
That plea. like so many others of its kind from Ireland. seems to have gone unheard. Time is [miming out.