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British-Irish relations touchy - despite blow to gun-runners

Relations between Dublin and London are not as warm as would be expected after last week's successful seizure of a gun-running trawler off the Kerry coast.

A recent speech to police recruits in Ulster by Douglas Hurd, the new secretary of state for Northern Ireland, sparked a series of complaints from the Republic of Ireland's Department of Foreign Affairs. The department interpreted Mr. Hurd's speech as claiming there was growing support among Ulster's Roman Catholics for the Royal Ulster Constabulary (RUC).

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This was regarded by Dublin as ''misleading,'' and the government's ''serious concern'' was expressed to the British ambassador in Dublin.

Early this week, however, Irish Prime Minister Garret FitzGerald admitted the Irish protest may have been ''a bit too hasty,'' and added that while one phrase of the Hurd speech ''did not reflect reality,'' he did not believe a particular remark taken out of context merited the sharp Dublin reaction.

The tiff between the two governments points to a deeper Irish concern.

Irish nationalists from north and south claim the half-million Roman Catholics in Northern Ireland are becoming increasingly ''alienated'' from the institutions of state, and that they have little or no faith in the impartiality of the police and judicial system.

Against such a background, the Ulster police have an almost impossible task of pleasing everyone. There are some 12,000 (7,000 full-timers and 5,000 part-timers) in the force, and unofficial estimates indicate that only 10 percent are Roman Catholics. The RUC does not recruit on a basis of religion, but because many Catholics are unwilling to join for fear of reprisals by the Provisional wing of the illegal Irish Republican Army, the police force is largely Protestant.

The British government in its response to the New Ireland Forum report - a nationalist blueprint for Irish unity with Protestant consent - has the difficult task of trying to increase Catholic participation in Ulster and its institutions such as the police, while at the same time avoiding the alienation of Protestants by giving too much away to Irish nationalists from north or south.

Britain's definite response is expected in November, when the Irish and British prime ministers meet at a special summit.

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Meanwhile, communications on the Dublin-London link may be impaired by the occasional crossed signals on security and border relations, as happened in the past 10 days.

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