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Charges fly as latest attempt to end Ulster hunger strikes fails

New attempts to end the crisis at Ulster's Maze prison, where a fifth hunger striker died this week, have collapsed amid charges from Irish mediators that Britain had failed to honor a settlement deal.

A new note of bitterness entered the dispute within hours of the death of Joseph McDonnell after a 61-day fast. The Irish Commission for Justice and Peace, which had spent five days with the Ulster authorities trying to defuse the crisis, said Britain had backed away from earlier undertakings.

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Commission spokesmen alleged that British delays in considering the peace formula had played a part in McDonnell's death. The immediate effect has been to put the British on the defensive in the face of critical comments from Dublin about the handling of the negotiations by Humphrey Atkins, British secretary of state for Northern Ireland. Inevitably, prospects of an eventual peace settlement have been damaged.

Shortly after McDonnell's death, Ulster officials read to the seven remaining hunger strikers a statement by Mr. Atkins proposing modest changes in conditions at the Maze prison. Further reforms, the statement said, might be negotiated, but not under duress.

The best way to deal with the crisis, Mr. Atkins said, was for the prisoners to end their hunger strike. But within a few hours another prisoner began a fast. The Provisional wing of the illegal Irish Republican Army (IRA) said he was replacing McDonnell.

A spokesman for the Irish Commission for Justice and Peace said later there was a large disparity between what his group had expected Britain to announce about prison conditions and what an official of the Northern Ireland office eventually read to hunger strikers after McDonnell's death.

The commission had Dublin's backing and confidence, and so prospects of a meeting of minds between London and Prime Minister Garret FitzGerald have dimmed.

Two main factors appear to have influenced Mr. Atkins during the negotiations:

First, he did not want to leave the impression of being blackmailed into concessions. So negotiations with the Irish commission proceeded at a leisurely pace, with every period and comma of draft peace plans subject to scrutiny in Belfast and London.

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Atkins finally offered the prisoners limited concessions, notably on one of their key demands -- the right to wear their own clothes at all times. He said they could wear their own clothing for three hours each evening and on weekends. IRA supporters say this did not meet the hunger strikers' demands.

Second, Atkins seems to believe that the resolve of the hunger strikers and their IRA backers is crumbling. Last week the Maze inmates apparently dropped their longstanding insistence that they should be treated as strictly political prisoners.

Instead, they put the emphasis more on physical conditions at the prison. It was at this point that the Irish peace commission, a mainly Roman Catholic body, entered the scene. They believed a formula on prison conditions could be hammered out with the Northern Ireland office.

According to a commission spokesman, the negotiations were a race against time, meaning that they wanted to produce a settlement before McDonnell's life ran out. They now accuse Britain of delays which made McDonnell's death inevitable.

Part of the delay, it is alleged, was caused by lengthy consultations between Belfast and the prime minister's office in London. There is also an implication that No. 10 Downing Street insisted on toning down some of the concessions officials serving Atkins had discussed with the Irish mediators.

In all the complex maneuvering, one point is clear: Another opportunity to end the crisis has slipped through the fingers of the negotiators. After McDonnell's death, rioting broke out in west Belfast, emphasizing anew the communal tensions behind the hunger strike.

There is, however, no sign that the government in London is in any way prepared to concede that a new peace formula can be clinched unless and until the Maze hunger strike is first brought to an end.

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