Hunger strike or not, the walls are closing in on killer Colin Howell
Reports that Colin Howell's prison collapse was the result of him refusing food have been met with widespread scepticism. Ivan Little ponders what's really going on in the double killer's life behind bars.
The man behind the north coast newsagent's shop was sceptical about the headlines yesterday.
As he looked over the story about double murder Colin Howell going on hunger strike, he smiled and said: "I can't believe that's what he's up to now."
He was not the only doubting Thomas. "I wouldn't take anything about him seriously," said a shopper in Portrush.
But what is for sure is that you cannot keep the Ballymoney dentist off the front pages.Even in what was supposed to be the calm after the storm of controversy created by ITV drama The Secret, Howell is in the media spotlight once again after reports claimed that he was admitted to hospital following a collapsing in jail while allegedly on hunger strike.
The Prison Service has refused to comment and health authorities have been equally reticent about the latest twist in the horror story.
But sources close to the callous killer have played down the hunger strike claim, though it has been accepted that all is not well with the man who was for years hailed as a model prisoner at Maghaberry.
One source said: "He's not doing a Bobby Sands. He has been ill and off his food because of all the pressures that are mounting on him, but that doesn't amount to a hunger strike."
One inmate who knows Howell told relatives that the prison's most infamous inhabitant had lost a considerable amount of weight recently - and that it was not by choice.
People outside the prison who are well-acquainted with Howell and his devious ways woke up yesterday morning to reports of his hunger strike and were immediately dismissive. "That's not the Colin Howell I know," said one man. "He wouldn't be someone who would try to starve himself to death. He has too much to live for."
But has he?
The suggestion is that Howell's cocky swagger - so deftly portrayed in The Secret by James Nesbitt - has been badly dented in recent times. His upbeat manner in jail is said to have been based on the belief that he would have a massive pension pot waiting for him when released.
The fourth and final episode of The Secret ended with Howell boasting about his ancestors' longevity. The implication was that he thought he would live for at least 20 years on easy street, funded by a Health Service Pension thought to be worth at least £500,000. But born-again Christian Howell, who also believes he is blessed with intelligence far above normal, did not foresee the Government's health chiefs stripping him of his nest egg after he admitted in court that he had drugged and abused a number of female patients at his former practice in Ballymoney.
Some people have blamed the morale-sapping body-blow to his financial future for his current medical problems, which are said to have been exacerbated by the screening of The Secret.
But one observer questioned what Howell could possibly hope to achieve through a hunger strike in a prison where the authorities have no influence over what happens to his pension or over the media's portrayal of him.
Veteran Belfast journalist Deric Henderson, who wrote the best-selling book on which the TV series was based, has largely kept his own counsel amid the meltdown over the making of The Secret. But on Twitter, he previously claimed Howell would revel in how any drama portrayed him, his former lover Stewart and the murders they carried out together while having an affair.
More recently, Henderson said he had been reliably informed that the dentist had not watched the programme.
But sources in the prison claimed that Howell had found it impossible to escape the constant barrage of ribald comments from other prisoners who saw his love-making played out in graphic sex scenes on the small screen.
"He took a lot of stick about what went on in the bedroom with Hazel, and that must have been a strain on him," said a source close to the double killer.
In the past, Henderson said Howell would have loved all the fuss because he enjoyed being the centre of attention. "And though something has clearly changed, I can't see him launching a hunger strike no matter how down he has been over the money and over the TV series," he added.
Despite it all, however, Howell has more friends than enemies in Maghaberry. He is said to have acted as a confidante and an adviser to other prisoners on many issues. He has also thrown himself into studying in the jail, including working towards gaining a mathematics degree and writing children's books and other publications in Braille.
It has also been widely reported that he has grown vegetables and has adjusted well to his new life behind bars. But it has also been said that one aspect of his incarceration that has grown more and more difficult for him to handle has been his ostracisation by most of his children, apart from Lauren Bradford.
It was Lauren who hit out publicly at the making of the series about the murder of her mother by her father.
However, his second wife, Kyle Jorgensen, turned her back on him and returned to her native America.
Howell has long harboured hopes that one day he will be reconciled with his family.
But - just like receiving his pension - the prospects of him playing happy families ever again would appear to have been scotched.