Britain forced to defend Northern Ireland policies
The world is beginning to insist that there are dimensions to the Northern Ireland crisis that go far beyond Britain's own immediate interests in the matter.Skip to next paragraph
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Increasingly, Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher and her ministers are having to defend their handling of the crisis in the face of international criticism and doubt.
This week Mrs. Thatcher had to take account of three kinds of external pressure on Northern Ireland:
* Ireland's ambassador in Washington asked President Ronald Reagan to use his influence on Britain to seek a solution to the hunger stike in Belfast's Maze Prison.
* Britain's allies in the European Community began privately making known their concern at the strains developing between London and the new government in Dublin over approaches to the Ulster problem.
* The International Red Cross was able to insist that it should carry out an inspection of the Maze Prison and attempt to mediate between the hunger-striking prisoners and the British authorities.
Each of these developments found Britain less than happy about its failure to keep the Ulster crisis a domestic matter.
The Irish prime minister, Garret FirzGerald, has political as well as humanitarian motives for wanting an H-blocks settlement.
Two Maze prisoners are believed close to death, one of them Kieran Doherty, is the newly elected representative for the border area of Cavan-Monaghan in the Irish parliament. Dr. FitzGerald could lose his waferthin majority of two votes if Mr. Doherty, now on the 57th day of his fast and "deteriorating rapidly," should die.
The possibility of intervention by President Reagan worried Mrs. Thatcher especially. She asked Lord Carrington, her foreign secretary, now on a visit to the United States, to explain Britain's position on Ulster to the US secretary of state, Alexander M. Haig Jr.
But the feeling in Belfast is that President Reagan, while expressing sympathy with the suffering in Northern Ireland, will reiterate the view that the Ulster issue is an internal matter of the British government.
European worries about the hunger strike are based on assessments of the damage likely to be done to relations between London and Dublin if more prisoners die and the hunger strike issue remains unresolved.
Ireland and Britain are partners in the European Community, and officials in Brussels and other capitals fear that their relations will worsen if no solution is found.
The International Red Cross visit to the Maze is an even sharper indication that Britain is having to respond to international pressure.
Red Cross officials in Geneva have tried many times to get British permission to visit the prison but have been consistently rebuffed. Now, London has suddenly agreed.
The humanitarian purpose of the Red Cross visit was being stressed both by the Swiss and the British. An International Red Cross spokesman said, "The only role is to try to bring about a humanitarian solution, not a political solution." And Humphrey Atkins, secretary of state for Northern Ireland, emphasized: "We are not negotiating with anybody. We have a clear duty to protect the public and to carry out the sentences of the courts. But we are anxious because we are humanitarian that the conditions under which we hold people should be the best we can provide."