Belfast — After yet another winter of discontent, Northern Ireland faces the spring with two basic problems -- the absence of political agreement and an ailing economy -- showing no signs of improvement.
The Stormont inter-party talks, begun on Jan. 7 in an attempt to find a political way forward, were adjourned March 24 without any agreement about a settlement based on power-sharing between Protestants and Roman Catholics.
The basic disagreement, which has undermined the conference from the beginning, remained unresolved. The Democratic Unionists, led by the Rev. Ian Paisley, wanted local rule based on majority power, where a half-million Catholics are outnumbered two to one by the Protestants.
In contrast, the mainly Catholic Social Democratic and Labour Party (SDLP), led by John Hume, held out for a settlement that would give the Catholics an equal power-sharing role despite their numerical minority. A third group, the middle-of-the-road Alliance Party, tried to build bridges -- but the mutually exclusive policies of the other two ruled out any compromise.
A minor achievement was the polite attitude adopted by the participants. Instead of the usual Northern Ireland mud-slinging, the politicians this time agreed to differ in a dignified way.
However, there were sharp public exchanges between Mr. Paisley and James Molyneaux, the leader of the Official Unionists, the largest Protestant grouping , who stayed aloof from the talks because they regard these to be time wasting. Mr. Paisley made political capital from claiming to protect the Protestant cause inside the talks while the Official Unionists stayed outside deliberately.
Meanwhile the British have been left to brood over the old problem of Northern Ireland, which seems to defy rational solution. Humphrey Atkins, the British Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, regained a little of his dwindling reputation by holding a series of talks parallel to the main discussions.
These "parallel" talks were a device to allow an airing of the SDLP's view of an all-Ireland solution, favored also by the Dublin government but resisted by the vast majority of Northern Protestants.
Mr. Atkins has already reported the outcome of the adjourned talks to British Prime Minister Margaret Tharcher, and the government is likely to outline its further plans in six to eight weeks. The next move will be considered by an inner cirlce of Cabinet heavyweights, including Home Secretary William Whitelaw, a former Northern Ireland secretary, and Foreign Secretary Lord Carrington, who played a major role in forging a settlement for Rhodesia.
Following further consultations in Northern Ireland, outline proposals could be presented to Parliament later this year, and if there are no major hitches there could be a new elected Ulster Assembly in operation by next summer.
This could be a form of parliamentary government that would have powers over nondivisive issues and thus give the province a limited form of local rule. It is crucial that the Official Unionists involve themselves in talks, but so far they have shown no inclination to do so.
The government's hopes for an elected assembly might seem optimistic to many people in Northern Ireland, particularly as the recent talks showed the gap between the parties. It is questionable if a local assembly handling noncontentious issues would provide enough power and therefore attraction for local politicians. On the positive side, however, the recent talks did not break down and the participants were anxious, in the words of one leader, "to bring them to land safely."
Northern Ireland did not escape British Chancellor of the Exchequer Sir Geoffrey Howe's sharp budget cuts. Northern Ireland is greatly dependent on government health and welfare benefits, and on jobs created by government public spending.
A further cutback of $28 million in public spending -- added to a $128 million reduction last November -- is bound to lead to fewer jobs and reduced services in the public sector. The March unemployment figures, at 11.5 percent compared to 6.1 in the United Kingdom, are the worst for 40 years, and there is no improvement in sight.
This year some 4,300 jobs will be affected as a result of cutbacks and closures announced by the government and individual corporations. This figure contrasts sharply with the 2,825 job promotions announced by the government in the same period.
A further comment came at the weekend from the highly respected Roman Catholic Bishop, Dr. Cathal Daly of Ardagh and Clonmacnoise: "One of the less-publicized and less-analyzed dimensions of the Northern violence is the close correlation between the maps indicating areas of social and economic deprivation and the maps plotting the incidence of violence."
Northern Ireland's vicious circle remains just that -- vicious.