London — "Nobody wants to invest money in a country where the political institutions might collapse in a moment," says Humphrey Atkins, Britain's secretary of state for Northern Ireland.
Then he adds forcefully, "Well, they won't in Northern Ireland."
His assurance rests on a simple fact. For the past eight years Northern Ireland has been ruled from London.
If he has his way, however, that may soon change. He hopes that a series of negotiations with most of the province's political leaders will produce "an advance" toward home rule.
In an interview with the Monitor -- in the stately chambers at Westminster that symbolize the current "direct rule" situation -- Mr. ATkins explained his hopes. "I am not an Ulsterman," says the friendly, graying Cabinet minister who lives in Berkshire, represents Surrey, and been in this office for a year. "The political advance we're seeking is to make certain that it is Ulstermen that decide these [political] matters."
The challenge to this advance is twofold. The most notorious is from the provisional Irish Republican Army terrorists. They are no longer motivated, he says, by "the difficult economic or unsatisfactory political situation," but are simply "thugs who are out to destroy first of all the government of the north, whatever it is, and then the government of the [Irish] Republic." Disavowed by the four main political parties in the north, they now have links with Marxist terrorist in the Middle East, Spain, and West Germany.
The real challenge to devolution, however, comes from the Protestant majority (which tends to resist sharing power with the Roman Catholic minority) and from the minority itself (which objects to British troops and to the so-called "guarantee" that Northern Ireland can remain British as long as the majority so desires).
Stepping gingerly among these barbs, Mr. Atkins may not have much time. The local belief in Belfast is that he will be replaced in a Cabinet shuffle next autumn, A Belfast news commentator says. The secretary hopes to draw up some kind of statement of the government's position during the course of the summer. "It is a step-by-step process," he says -- a view confirmed by many Northern Ireland observers, who almost all insist on the need for patience in finding a solution."
As a politician, Mr. Atkins is in something of a quandary. The Conservative government has set its face toward spending cuts. But Northern Ireland sponges up more than its share of regional spending. That is partly because of the cost of security. but it also results from the conviction that there, more than anywhere else, the economic situation must be massaged.
Does that leave his free-market philosophy at loggerheads with Ulster's needs?"Not really," he says. He recognizes that "inward investment does depend upon the government offering incentives which only government can do." These incentives, in fact, are larger in Ulster than anywhere in Great Britain. But he points out that once the investors have come, "then the philosophy is, 'Right , you've come, here you are, good luck, man, get on with it. We're not going to interfere with you.'"
One company he has to interfere with, however, is the nationalized shipbuilder, Harland & Wolff, whose gantries dominate the Belfast waterfront. The yard, one of the world's largest, has recently shrunk considerably and has specialized in LPG tankers for oil companies and short-sea ferries for British Rail. John Simpson, an economist at Queen's University of Belfast, notes that the shipbuilder soaked up a $:22 million ($50 million) assistance grant from the government last year, while it deeply disappointed British Rail by being 10 months late with the first ferry. There appears to be a good world market for tankers and ferries. But at present there is no work left for the yard after 1981.
Speaking as the province's chief politician, Mr. Atkins says, "We would be very, very unhappy to see the yard closed." But speaking as a Conservative, he adds, "On the other hand, if people do not want the product at the price -- and the time -- that Harland & Wolff are able to produce it, it's very difficult." He plans to face that difficulty when he decides on the yard's funding this summer.
Mr. Atkins is pleased with the stronger security arrangements made with the Irish Republic last October in the wake of the Mount- batten and Warrenpoint killings. He is also pleased that the flow of American funds to terrorists has "diminished tremendously in recent years." He credits that change to the efforts of the Irish-American politicians known as the "four horsemen": Speaker of the House Thomas P. O'Neill Jr. of Massachusetts; New York Gov. Hugh Carey; and Sens , Edward M. Kennedy (D) of Massachusetts and Daniel P. Moynihan (D) of new york.
What change of view should Americans undergo about Northern Ireland? They should realize, Mr. Atkins said, that "Northern Ireland is not a province in flames, with terrorists running up and down the streets all the time. It is in fact a most attractive part of the United Kingdom, where the troubles really have very, very much less effect than people would believe."