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(Page 2 of 3)

Which account is true? What lies behind the glass? Is this a terrorist's playfield or a manufacturer's El Dorado?

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The answer, it seems, falls between the two -- and probably further toward the latter than ever in the past 10 years. Brian Lyttle, deputy secretary of the Norhtern Ireland Department of Commerce, explains that "the situation as regards new investment has changed quite dramatically since 1978."

The international competition to attract new foreign manufacturing to English- speaking areas of the European Community is a polite game, played in potent earnest against professionals in the Republic of Ireland, Scotland, Wales , and the English regions. The rewards to investors -- low unit costs and a tariff-free entree into a European market of 259 million consumers -- balance the rewards to the host countries, where much-needed jobs are created. Between 1970 and 1977, however, because of the troubles, "we virtually disappeared from the investment market," Mr. Lyttle says.

But the intensity of the troubles scaled down in 1977, with civilian killings only 28 percent of the previous year's level. That year the police and the Army changed tactics. That year, too, the government bolstered its incentive program for new businesses.

"Armed with this package, we had to get ourselves back inside the door with American corporations," Mr. Lyttle says.

Since the last survey by this newspaper (May 1978), the results have been improving. The department claims that its programs helped create 4,000 promised jobs in 1978, 2,700 in 1979. Announcements of a General Motors expansion and a new Lear Jet factory have added 1,850 so far this year.

But, Mr. Lyttle adds, these figures must be seen in perspective. Aside from the troubles, the problems in Northern Ireland are typical of those of the United Kingdom in general: a strong pound (making exports less competitive), high interest rates, and a depressed worldwide market in many areas. And the history of the region is similar, the prominent feature being the decline of the traditional businesses, which date back to the Industrial Revolution and are no longer invincible. In the past 25 years, Northern Ireland has lost some 100,000 jobs in textiles, clothing, and shipbuilding.

The pressure on employment continues, compounded by the highest birthrate per thousand (16.5) in the United Kingdom (which averages 11.8, in 1977 figures).Government officials are reluctant to say how many jobs the area needs to survive. The conventional wisdom here, however, puts the figure at 10,000 a year -- well above the numbers recorded by even the most friendly statistics.

In fact, however, the situation cannot be seen apart from the troubles. The Commerce Department's first job is to convince potential investors that doing business here is, as Mr. lyttle says, "not horrendous." In this he has the support of corporations already here. This correspondent, speaking with a number of executives in small and large businesses, found that:

* Most industries, aside from the unusually tight plant security, appear to run quite untouched by the difficulties."We find that the so-called troubles have not had any great impact on industry here," says Eric Jones, engineering manager at Hughes Tool Company.

* Labor relations, measured by days lost per year, are significantly better than in the United Kingdom, the United States, or the Republic of Ireland -- although far from the impressive record of West Germany.The terrorist have no popular following here, and sympathy strikes are no longer occurring.