The hunger strike by seven Irish Republican prisoners at the Maze prison in Belfast that began on Oct. 27 shows no signs of ending, and it continues to drive even greater wedges between the Protestant and Roman Catholic communities in Northern Ireland.
The seven men, all of whom have been found guilty of serious crimes and three of murder, have undertaken to fast to death in an attempt to force the British government to grant special status to prisoners found guilty of terrorist offenses. This means treating them differently from ordinary criminals and allowing special privileges.
The seven on hunger strike represent 350 other Republic prisoners who are demanding similar privileges. The Provisional wing of the illegal Irish Republican Army believes that if the British weaken on this issue, they will have won a major victory in their long campaign of violence to weaken and eventually remove British rule from Northern Ireland.
The British government, and the vast majority of the 1 million Protestants in Northern Ireland, are equally determined that the prisoners must not be given special status.
Public opinion in Northern Ireland is divided. While Protestants are determined that the government should not give way on the issue, there are differences even among the province's 500.000 Roman Catholics. Some Catholics support a united Ireland but totally reject the Provisionals' campaign. Others do not support terrorism but they believe it is also wrong that the British should allow men to die in their attempt to make a political point.