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Britain finds it's not easy being big guy on the block

British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher was kicked politically (again) this week by a 700-year-old problem that plagues other governments -- including both the United States and the Soviet Union. The general problem is the relationship between a great world power and its smaller neighbors. In Mrs. Thatcher's case the specific version of this problem is Britain's relationship with Ireland and the Irish.

The US version of the problem is provided by Nicaragua and El Salvador. The Soviet version is provided by Eastern Europe and Afghanistan. Small neighbors habitually resent and resist control of their internal affairs by the big neighbor.

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The problem hit Mrs. Thatcher this week in the form of a strike by the broadcasters at the British Broadcasting Corporation. For 24 hours the strike closed down all BBC news programs, both internal and external. The problem also gave the political opposition new ammunition against Thatcher, whose Conservative Party has recently been experiencing a decline in public opinion polls and in by-elections.

The strike was called by BBC broadcasters in protest against cancellation by the BBC board of governors of a documentary program on Northern Ireland. The documentary included interviews with figures on Ulster's political fringe. One of them was Martin McGuinness, who is reputed to be the chief of staff of the outlawed Irish Republican Army (IRA).

The cancellation was decided on after Home Secretary Leon Brittan had written a letter to BBC chairman Stuart Young in which he said the program was contrary to the public interest. Thatcher had earlier made similar public comments.

The broadcasters immediately raised the charge of official censorship. Opposition Labour Party leader Neil Kinnock seized on the affair, saying the ban on the program had had the net effect of giving the IRA wonderful publicity.

It was a tempest in a teapot, perhaps. It blacked out BBC news for only 14 hours. It cannot bring down Thatcher's government.

But it is a reminder of how the attempt by a powerful nation to control its small neighbors in the interest of the big power's ``security'' causes continuing trouble, sometimes long after the original condition has changed. The Republic of Ireland has been independent since 1922.

The current IRA, outlawed both in Northern Ireland and the Irish Republic, is in part a virulent form of Irish resentment against 700 years of English intrusion into the internal and domestic affairs of the Irish people.

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It began when the Norman English invaded Ireland in the 13th century. It survives in the fact that the six counties of Northern Ireland are still part of Britain and are still dominated by Protestants of English and Scottish origin. They were sent there as colonists beginning in the early 1600s.

National security was the standard justification used by the British for intervening in Ireland. National security is the main reason used by President Reagan for US intervention in Central America. National security is the basic reason for Soviet control over the countries of Eastern Europe and over Afghanistan.

A classic response to the argument of national security was provided by a devoted English supporter of the Irish cause. Erskine Childers, author of the mystery ``The Riddle of the Sands,'' was executed in the courtyard of Beggar's Bush barracks in Dublin in 1922 for his share in the then IRA's activities. Before he died, he had written:

``As for the risk to Great Britain, I have only this last word to say: Let her people, not for the first time, show that they can rise superior to the philosophy, as fallacious in effect as it is base and cowardly in purpose, which sets the safety of a great nation above the happiness and prosperity of a small one.''

As Thatcher was being bruised this week by a flare-up of the ancient Irish problem, the Soviets were routinely continuing their attempts to dominate the internal politics of Afghanistan and keeping their usual firm grip on East Germany, Poland, Czechoslovakia, Hungary, Romania, and Bulgaria.

Meanwhile, Reagan's hired ``contras'' in Nicaragua were making news by being more active. Their latest military operations have shown improved combat capacity. They seem to be able to press deeper into the country. On recent operations they have advanced to within about 80 miles of the Nicaraguan capital.

Other important world news of the week was made by Moscow's announcement that it would be willing to allow Western inspection of two nonmilitary nuclear sites inside the Soviet Union.

This was a small sign that Moscow wants to sweeten the atmosphere a bit during this season approaching the November summit in Geneva. Most other nations have long since accepted some degree of international inspection of nuclear plants for civilian purposes. Moscow is merely catching up in this matter.

But there is little sign that Moscow and Washington are learning anything from the British experience in Ireland.

The British were always afraid of being attacked by Continental enemies using Ireland as a back-door stepping stone. In the days of Queen Elizabeth I, the fear was that the Spanish would use Ireland as a base for invading England. Later there was fear of the French doing the same.

In World Wars I and II the Germans were the enemy and were widely believed in England to have contacts and potential bases in neutral Ireland. The Germans certainly did have the contacts, and they furthered their own interests by providing guns to the IRA -- many of which Mr. Childers carried to Ireland in his own yacht.

As a footnote to history, Erskine Hamilton Childers, the son of Erskine Childers, was President of the Irish Republic in 1972 and 1974.

Thatcher's feelings on the subject of IRA terrorists are understandable. More than 2,000 people have been killed during the past 16 years of Ulster's ``troubles.'' She herself was narrowly missed by the IRA bomb that blew off part of the hotel at which she was staying in Brighton last year. She recently made a speech in which she urged that the press deny to terrorists ``the oxygen of publicity.''

The BBC governors stoutly deny that they caved in to government pressure to ban the broadcast. But the response to the letter from the home secretary appears to fly in the face of the long-held contention that the BBC is independent of the government and covers the news as freely and as objectively as any privately owned newspaper.

The BBC is a corporation. It is not owned by the government. It is sustained by a levy on television and radio sets collected by the Post Office. It also derives revenue from the sale of publications. Its main income, however, comes from the levy.

The classic case of attempted interference with the BBC occurred during the Suez crisis of 1956. The government, then led by Prime Minister Anthony Eden, demanded that the leader of the opposition, Hugh Gaitskell, be denied ``equal time'' to criticize the British military landings at Suez. The BBC resisted the pressure from Downing Street. And Mr. Gaitskell made his comment disapproving the act of intervention.

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