Cool receptions for latest proposals on Northern Ireland
The chances of political movement in Northern Ireland have scarcely been increased by the latest British government suggestion that a political advisory council should be established in the province.
Ulster politicians have given the proposal a cool reception. Meanwhile, as the Conservative government literally soldiers on to maintain peace, the opposition Labour Party, and a former Labour Prime minister James Callaghan, have produced new statements on the future of Northern Ireland.
At present the province is ruled directly from London. This is principally because politicians representing Ulster's 1 million Protestants and a half-million Catholics cannot agree on a shared form of local government. Last year joint talks on this subject broke down and one of the major groupings, the Of ficial Unionists, refused to take part.
The new plan, announced by Northern Ireland Secretary humphrey Atkins, is an attempt to fill that vacuum. The British want a 50-member advisory council made up of people already in public office, including members of the British Parliament, Northern Ireland's three representatives in the European Parliament, and a number of representatives on Ulster's local district councils.
For ulster's politicians there is one major snag -- they could advise the British but they would not control policy. The immediate reaction was not encouraging. Seamus Mallon, spokesman for the mainly Catholic Social Democratic and Labour Party, underlined the practical difficulty of advising on policies without having any real power.
A deeper objection on both sides is that the two main communities have different aims -- the Protestants mainly want more local power but refuse to share it equally with Catholics.
The Catholics have tired of trying to get Protestants to talk about power-sharing and they look for an solution in an all-Ireland context.
A hard-line Official Unionist, the Rev. Robert Bradford, summarized the divide, "There is no reconciliation possible between the two conflicting philosophies, so what is the point in considering them again and again?"
This is perhaps an oversimplification. There are bridge-builders but they are outnumbered by hard-liners. The Rev. Ian Paisley, leader of the Democratic Unionists, pledged his commitment to wreck the new plan and announced the formation of a Protestant force to combat the IRA.
The British will press ahead in a genuine attempt to find common ground and to convince their European allies and the United States that they are trying to create some political movement in northern Ireland. But few here are optimistic about the outcome.
There has been an equally cool reception given to former Labour Prime minister James Callaghan's proposal that full powers should be transferred gradually to the people of Northern Ireland with the ultimate emergence of an independent state. Mr. Callaghan, as British home secretary, put the troops on the streets in 1969 to quell Ulster riots and he has been regarded as one of the more knowledgeable senior Westminster politicians on Irish affairs. His latest proposal, however, has caused many to question his judgment.
Michael Foot, the Labour leader, disagreed almost totally with its content. Gerry Fitt, a leading Belfast Catholic and an MP close to Labour and Callaghan, described the plan as "impossible." A lower-key approach is being taken by the Labour Party study group, which is suggesting long-term Irish unity but only with the consent of all, including Northern loyalists.
After a week of political flurry the picture has not changed. Ulster politicians and people, despite the minority of bridge-builders, still lack the will to reach agreement. At present there seems no alternative to direct rule from Britain, with or without the help of an Ulster-based ad visory council.