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Mrs. Thatcher's choice ups Ulster's economic hopes

By Alf McCreary / September 22, 1981

Belfast James Prior, the new secretary of state for Northern Ireland, will take responsibility for a province more deeply troubled by economic decline, political polarization, and rising violence them two years ago. Mr. Prior, a former employment secretary and political heavyweight in the British Cabinet, will face security and political problems that proved intractable to his predecessor, Humphrey Atkins. There is no guarantee he will do any better. Still his economic experience and political stature could mean a better deal for a province facing industrial decline and increasing unemployment. Mr. Prior, a Tory squire who farms 370 acres in Suffolk, has a tough political skin despite his nickname, Jolly Jim. He fought and lost the battle with Mrs. Thatcher to stay at the key Ministry of Employment partly because he opposed the prime minister's economic policy and partly because other leading conservatives thought that he was too soft with the trade unions. The new secretary for Northern Ireland retains his seat on the Cabinet's economic committee, but it is felt that having lost the battle with Mrs. Thatcher, he was banished to Ulster. The new secretary of state for Northern Ireland is the most influential Cabinet figure to have taken the post since William Whitelaw, now deputy prime minister and home secretary, took charge of Ulster's affairs in 1972 and 1973. Politicians, businessmen, and trade unionists here are hoping that the new secretary of state will use his influence to plead for special economic measures to help a province that has been badly hit during the world recession. Unemployment is running at 19 percent and there are individual black spots like Strabane with 44 percent male unemployment. Richard Gordon, Northern Ireland director of the Confederation of British Industry, said, "The situation is gloomy but the one hopeful sign is the appointment of Mr. Prior.Our economic case might be better put than in the past." Mr. Prior showed considerable powers of conciliation in dealing with British trade unions, but there is no sign that he will take a softer line on the Maze prison hunger strikes, particularly as the British seem to be winning this battle of wills. However, he will need all his persuasive powers to begin again political dialogue in a province where Roman Catholics and Protestants have become even more polarized since 1979, when Mr. Atkins took up office. The polarization was not entirely Mr. Atkins' fault. But some felt that he could have shown more toughness in persuading the rival factions to agree. Privately he had a shrewd grasp of the complexities and the intransigence of Ulster politics, but his public statements gave the impression that he was not forceful. He gained the reputation of being merely an intermediary. Most observers believed Mrs. Thatcher herself laid down the policy for Northern Ireland.

Special to The Christian Science Monitor

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