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New plan, old problems, for N. Ireland

By Alf McCrearySpecial to The Christian Science Monitor / July 8, 1980



Belfast

The British goverment's proposals for the transfer of certain powers to Northern Ireland have created little new hope in this province where the major concern is rising unemployment and a bleak economic future.

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Add to this a background of continued violence, and the mood here is one of defensiveness and uncertainty that makes any possibility of a political breakthrough more remote.

The British have offered a choice -- an administration where representatives of the 1 million Protestants share power equally with the half-million Catholics , or, alternatively, a majority Protestant administration but with safeguards for Catholics.

Neither option looks like being accepted. The Protestants, led by the Rev. Ian Paisley, refuse to share power with Catholics. The Catholics, led by John Hume, distrust a Protestant majority, even with built-in safeguards. It is likely that the British will have to revert to a modified form of direct rule from Westminster.

The economic outlook is even more bleak. Northern Ireland's unemployment for June was 73,000 -- or 12.7 percent. These are the worst figures since 1938, and Jack Curlis, president of the Irish Congress of Trade Unions, has predicted a further increase to more than 100,000 unemployed.

Northern Ireland has the worst of all combinations -- a world recession, a British economic downturn, and its own needs in a region of high unemployment even at the best of times.

On the eve of the British constitutional announcements the West German-based Grundig company made major headlines by disclosing abruptly that it was to close its factory at Dunmurry, near Belfast, in October with the loss of 1,000 jobs. Even though the British offered further help, the company pointed out that the Northern Ireland factory was not viable and that there had been similar closures in France and West Germany.

This news was followed by a British announcement of a further $42.5 million for the ailing Belfast shipyard Harland and Wolff's, which employs 7,000. This was $9 million more than had been estimated, and every government department in Northern Ireland and will have to trim its spending because of Harland's additional money.

In the past six years the firm has received $125 million. Although it has won a new $50 million order for two British Petroleum (BP) tankers, the long-term future of the yard is still uncertain.

To accompany the new money, the government announced an independent review to study how the shipyard can "diversify" its operations into areas other than shipbuilding.

These are the more obvious trends, but equally worrying is the steady job loss in many smaller companies.

The economic outlook is grim, and there is continued foreboding about security. In round figures there is no dramatic increase in deaths -- 45 in the first half of 1980 compared to 44 for the same period last year -- but there is no abatement of the viciousness of the killings. Recently two leading Republicans, politician John Turnly and lecturer Dr. Miriam Daly, were killed in cold blood, and extreme loyalists are suspected.

Meanwhile the Provisional wing of the illegal Irish Republican Army (IRA) continues to kill and would members of the part-time Ulster Defence Regiment and Protestants in border areas are increasingly anxious about their own safety.

Feelings ran so high recently that loyalist politicians, including the Rev. Ian Paisley, addressed a large Protestant gathering in Newtown Butler, a border village, and warned the British that if the government does not provide sufficient protection, the people would take "whatever steps are necessary" to protect themselves.

A good barometer of the Protestant mood is the annual assembly of the Presbyterian Church, which debates and decides its policy on certain social and political issues of the day. This year the 700-member assembly decided to withdraw from the World Council of Churches, partly on theological grounds but partly because of fears that the WCC was funding terrorists in Africa -- despite assurances from missionaries and others that this is not so.

At a time when the British constitutional proposals require a spirit of outwardness and even of shared adventures as well as trust, the prevailing defensiveness and uncertainty is unlikely to pave the way for a brave new dawn in Norther Ireland's affairs.

Rushworth Kidder reports from London:

The latest initiative on Ulster, launched in Parliament July 2, is based on 14 months of talks between British Secretary of State for Northern Ireland Humphrey Atkins and Ulster politicians. It neither imposes a solution nor asks Parliament to implement a particular proposal. Instead, it:

* Calls for a single-chamber Northern Ireland assembly of about 80 members, which, like the European Parliament to be elected by proportional representation.

* Suggests the subjects over which the assembly would have control, similar to those transferred to the abortive Stormont Parliament in 1973 but not including law and order, defense, nor budgetary matters.

* Proposes an advisory council of leading members of the assembly to facilitate consultation with Westminster on these reserved powers.

But the bulk of the paper is devoted to the most sensitive point: how to elect an executive within the assemly. While suggesting several options, the paper strongly recommends a system whereby any party winning a minimum proportion of the popular vote would have a place in the executive -- thus guaranteeing minority representation in what would effectively be the Cabinet.