The success of hunger strike candidate Owen Carron in the Fermanagh-South Tyrone by-election has raised the IRA hunger strike campaign to a new pitch that could have serious repercussions for democratic politics in Ireland, north and south.
The main effect of his victory -- by a slightly larger majority than that of convicted hunger striker Bobby Sands, who died a month after his election to the British Parliament in April -- has been to further polarize opinion between Protestant unionists and Roman Catholic nationalists.
Protestants are horrified that 31,000 votes should be cast for someone they regard as a fellow traveler of the Provisional wing of the illegal Irish Republican Army (IRA). Catholics explain that they were voting largely on humanitarian grounds, in sympathy with the dying hunger strikers, but their words fall on deaf ears.
Meanwhile, Mr. Carron has wasted no time in aligning himself with the most militant elements in the political wing of the IRA, the Provisional Sinn Fein, of which he is himself a member. He agreed with a statement by one of the group's leaders that "legitimate armed action against the British forces" was a necessary ingredient in the nationalist struggle.
"Everything that has been gained in Ireland has been gained by fighting," said Mr. Carron. "No one likes violence, but we did not start it." Adding fuel to the flames, he said he wanted Danny Morrison, editor of An Phoblacht (The Republic), the Provisionals' weekly tirade against the British, to accompany him to Downing Street for a meeting with Margaret Thatcher. But Mrs. Thatcher has resuded to meet with Mr. Carron, inviting him to meet with Northern Ireland junior minister Michael Alison instead.
Mrs. Thatcher still insists the prisoners end their fast before any reforms can be granted. The prisoners have dropped their demand for political status, but still demand the right to free movement within the H-shaped cell blocks and refuse to do prison work.
The British claim these privileges would amount to relinquishing control of the prisons, but they are the clear losers in the propaganda war that has ensued. All shades of nationalist and Roman Catholic opinion in Ireland, north and south, attack the government for its "inflexibility." The effect has been worsening relations between London and Dublin.
The new Irish government, under Garret FitzGerald, has been particularly critical of Mrs. Thatcher, and a top-level review of policy on Northern Ireland is under way before a crucial summit meeting, expected shortly. Calls for a withdrawal of the Irish ambassador have been resisted, but Dr. FitzGerald is well aware that unless the hunger strike is solved by November, he stands to lose a by-election caused by the death of a hunger-striking member of the Irish Dail (parliament). This would endanger his waferthin majority. While the hunger strike continues, normal politics are rendered almost impossible by this single overriding concern.
Meanwhile, Provisional Sinn Fein, which masterminded the by-election win, threatens to upset the political process in the north by putting up candidates in future elections to Westminster, against its traditional policy of nonparticipation. Its aim is to challenge the moderate Social Democratic and Labour Party (SDLP), led by European MP John Hume. Unless it shows more spirit than in Fermanagh-South Tyrone, whereit declined to fight Mr. Carron for the Catholic vote, there could be a dramatic change in the face of nationalist politics toward extremism.