The first hunger strike by an Irish Republican Army prisoner in a decade reached its 35th day Tuesday, not long before a legal decision that political observers predict will be a major turning point in the extradition of terrorist suspects to British courts.
Desmond Ellis, rapidly losing weight and going blind, has spent the past month refusing food in protest against his pending extradition to England on IRA bombing charges. In published interviews, Ellis has said: "Obviously I don't want to die. I want to live . . . but I cannot accept extradition. I will die rather than be extradited to Britain."
His case reflects the first test of the Irish Republic's 1987 Extradition Act, which British security officials hope will make it harder for IRA guerrillas to use Ireland as a haven against prosecution for attacks carried out in Britain.
The gradual political rapprochement between Ireland and Britain has had to overcome Irish suspicion that Irishmen accused of terrorist crimes cannot receive a fair trial in British courts. Four times in the last two years, Irishmen wanted in Britain on suspicion of IRA involvement have been freed by Irish courts on grounds that the British system was biased against them.
Such traditional sentiment in Ireland is the linchpin in the campaign to either have Ellis freed or to have him brought to trial on the British charges in an Irish court.
Ellis, 38, a former television repairman, was arrested in his suburban Dublin home in May, 1981, after Irish police linked him to the discovery of an IRA explosives cache. He jumped bail two months later and fled. He was arrested in Buffalo, N.Y., the following February, and extradited to Ireland. Sentenced in April, 1983, he has spent the last seven years in Ireland's Portlaoise Prison.
The day before he was to be released last April, Ellis was served with extradition warrants alleging that he "conspired with three other men to cause explosions" in Britain between Jan. 1, 1981, and Oct. 23, 1983--a span during which, his supporters note, he spent much of his time in jail or under police surveillance.
Visitors report that Ellis' eyesight is failing and that his weight has dropped by 30 pounds. Barely able to walk, he was transferred on the 30th day of his fast to a military hospital.
"There is still the opportunity to resolve the issue," said Gerry Adams, member of Parliament for West Belfast, Northern Ireland, and president of Sinn Fein, the legal political wing of the outlawed IRA. " 'Dessie' is quite prepared to stand trial here in Ireland."
Spokesmen for Britain's Northern Ireland Office, which since 1972 has governed the disputed province, have declined comment until the Dublin Supreme Court rules on whether to extradite Ellis or grant his appeal. That ruling is expected later this week.
"If this government hands Dessie over, they are signing his death warrant," said Martha Ellis, his sister, at an 8,000-strong weekend rally in Dublin.
Sinn Fein activists and sympathetic politicians in Ireland have sought in recent weeks to whip up public support for Ellis on both sides of the border.
But frequent orchestrated protests have not touched off a broad public response. The general lack of interest in Ellis' appeal contrasts heavily with widespread attention focused on the 1981 hunger strikes, during which 10 prisoners starved themselves to death in Northern Ireland's Maze Prison. That attempt failed to get political concessions, but it gave the IRA increased political power in its campaign to force a British withdrawal from Northern Ireland.
This time, even some IRA activists are portraying Ellis' gesture as ill-advised, ill-timed and against their wishes. Several Sinn Fein and IRA members wrote to or visited Ellis in prison, asking him to end his hunger strike. "Why? Because we felt he was going to be extradited no matter what he did . . . ," said Geordia Murtagh, an IRA veteran recently paroled after 12 years in the Maze.
One factor that has distracted attention from Ellis' fast has been the presidential contest in the Irish Republic, resulting last Thursday in the election of the country's first woman president, Mary Robinson. A recent spate of bloody violence in Northern Ireland also appears to have stiffened Irish politicians' resolve to extradite IRA suspects.