Belfast — Garret FitzGerald, the newly elected mininster of the Irish Republic, says that solving the Northern Ireland problem will be the foremost concern of his Fine Gael-Labour Party administration.
"The Ulster issue will come first with me and my government -- nothing else will come before it," he vowed in his first speech to the Dail (parliament) after being elected prime minister June 30.
But the Fine Gael leader, who was supported by the Labour Party in ousting the Fianna Fail government of Charles J. Haughey, only squeaked into power by 81 votes to 78 -- a slender majority created when Fine Gael's 65 deputies were joined by Labour's 15 and by lone independent Jim Kemmy.
Dr. FitzGerald's position is rendered somewhat vulnerable by the fact that Mr. Kemmy, a Socialist representing Limerick East, said that his support for the coalition will be "conditional qualified, and critical. . . ." It is made considerably more perilous by four other independent members who abstained in the voting and are clearly in a position to topple the coalition whenever they choose.
FitzGerald says that his first priority in office will be to attempt to find a solution to the hunger strikes at the Maze prison. He says the "sheer urgency" of the situation gives it precedence over the economy which, he claims, is in a worse state than he imagined.
The eight hunger strikers have roundly rejected an offer made by Northern Ireland Secretary Humphrey Atkins to review prison conditions if they brought their fast to an end.
The new prime minister is pledged to continue to London-Dublin talks on Ulster that Mrs. Thatcher and Mr. Haughey initiated last year.
Monitor contributor Alf McCreary, also reporting from Belfast, adds:
Ireland's new prime minister is more acceptable to Ulster loyalists than his predecessor, Charles Haughey, but the deep-seated fears in Northern Ireland about southern politicians remain.
The Northerners believe that all Dublin governments are committed to the reunification of Ireland and that the Anglo-Irish studies now being carried out on energy, tourism, transport, and other matters are stepping stones to unity.
The current attitude to Dr. FitzGerald was summed up by Ernest Baird, leader of the United Ulster Unionists -- one of the smaller loyalist groupings. He said, "While the rhetoric and tone of Dr. FitzGerald's utterances might be more soothing to Unionist ears, this must not be allowed to obscure the fact that what in substance divides Mr. Haughey and Dr. FitzGerald on the future of Northern Ireland consists of minutiae."
Both are committed to Irish unity, but they have a different emphasis on how this might be achieved. Haughey puts much importance on the Anglo-Irish studies which were set up after a Dublin summit meeting with British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher last December. Neither gave any details in public, but Haughey, in particular, stressed their importance.
He also declared publicly that Northern Ireland is a "failed political entity." This fanned hostility in Ulster and increased suspicions of a sellout by the British. Mrs. Thatcher repeatedly and emphatically denied such allegations, but the fears remain.
Dr. FitzGerald has adopted a more gentle approach. He intends to continue with the joint studies, but to reveal more about them. He has also suggested that northerners should have a voice in such talks.
Some of FitzGerald's popularity may be due to the fact he is a less remote figure to people north of the border. FitzGerald's mother was a northern Presbyterian. He is a man who has tried to talk to Northerners and direct to London. And in the proud north this is deeply resented by Unionists.
Not suprisingly, the immediate reaction to FitzGerald has been restrained. James Molyneaux, leader of the Official Unionists -- the biggest loyalist grouping -- advised him not to make the mistake of his predecessors and to remember that his jurisdiction did not cover Northern Ireland.
The Rev. Ian Paisley, leader of the second- largest loyalist group, the Democratic Unionists, chose tactfully not to mention FitzGerald. But he emphasized his personal satisfaction at the defeat of Haughey, whom he described as "the arch-enemy" of Ulster.
For their part the Social Democratic and Labour Party, representing the 500, 000 Roman Catholics in the north (outnumbered 2 to 1 by the Protestants) held out the olive branch to the new premier. Sean Farran, the chairman, said, "we have had a close working relationship with him in the past and no doubt we will be able to build on this in the future."