N. Ireland talks stir upbeat mood, but obstacles remain

Direct rule from London seems to suit the people of Northern Ireland -- but not the British government. In a Monitor interview, Humphrey Atkins, the British secretary of state for Northern Ireland, explained that the Ulster public supports direct rule "because people think it is reasonably fair."

Mr. Atkins sees his job as one of finding some formula of "a transfer of responsibility" into the hands of locally elected politicians -- without sacrificing the new, delicately balanced mood of public confidence.

"We are determined to establish some form of elected body here," the tall British Cabinet minister said with calm assurance as the lights of Belfast winked through the windows of his Stormont Castle office.

Speaking for Margaret Thatcher's Tory government, Mr. Atkins said that "we are determined to establish something that is going to last."

Flanking the door to his high Victorian office are small photographs of his predecessors: William Whitelaw, Francis Pym, Merlyn Rees, and Roy Mason -- four tough, highly competent secretaries of state who also had high hopes.

Those photos are a reminder that British ministers need to bring more than political skills to Northern Ireland. This may explain why a radio and television set -- with their hourly soundings of public opinion in Ulster -- dominate the ornate marble mantlepiece in Mr. Atkins' office.

Mr. Atkin's years as Conservative Party Whip in the British Parliament gave him solid training in political maneuvering. It gave him experience in dealing with Ulster's representatives at Westminster, particularly the hardline Protestant leader Ian Paisley and Gerry Fitt, the former leader of the predominantly Roman Catholic Social Democratic and Labour Party (SDLP).

Both Dr. Paisley and Mr. Fitt welcomed Prime Minister Thatcher's appointment of Mr. Atkins to the Ulster post in May, 1979 -- and both caused some surprise by agreeing to join in the talks Mr. Atkins called for on Northern Ireland's constitutional future.

The political risks of joining those talks were shown when Mr. Fitt lost the SDLP leadership to John Hume. Mr. Hume subsequently managed to bring a reluctant party along with him by appearing to broaden the scope of the Atkins talks before joining in them when they opened on Jan. 7.

Mr. Atkins was successful in bringing Dr. Paisley's Democratic Unionist Party , Mr. Hume's SDLP, and the moderate Alliance Party to the talks, which resume Jan. 21. He remains hopeful that the Official Unionist Party will join the talks and that some agreement will be reached, leading to a return to local administration "within a year or so."

The launching of the talks has added to an upbeat mood here. "The very fact that Dr. Paisley and Mr. Hume are meeting, risking loss of support among their own followers, indicates that some sort of compromise is possible," one of Mr. Atkins' aides explained. "These are experienced politicians, and they wouldn't take this risk without some real hope of success."

But there's also a full awareness of the major obstacles ahead -- obstacles that defeated the best efforts of Messrs. Whitelaw, Pym, Rees, and Mason.

Mr. Atkins' "working paper" for the present conference on devolved government spells out the chief difficulty.

"It is in the government's view essential to recognize that the particular circumstances of Northern Ireland require special arrangements to be made to protect the position of the minority community and to specify the role of its representatives in whatever new arrangements are adopted.

"This is because, given the basis on which support for political parties in Northern Ireland rests, the representatives of the minority community cannot so broaden their appeal as to expect to win office by way of any future elections."

Mr. Atkins recognizes that the success of any new form of devolved government rests on general acceptance among the province's half-million Roman Catholics as well as among the 1 million Protestants. Both groups he said, must "feel that something set up here could operate fairly" -- at least as fairly as direct rule now does.

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