Belfast — The Irish republican movement believes that the provisional wing of the illegal Irish Republican Army (IRA) did better than the British government in the publicity battle in America during the seven-month hunger strike that ended Oct. 3.
The British believe that they did better than their critics, including many Ulster Protestants, suggest. And Ulster politicians recently returned from an extensive tour of the United States feel that many Americans are saddened by the suffering in Northern Ireland but that they do not really understand the complexities of the problem.
These are my broad conclusions after speaking to representatives from all sides and after spending two weeks in the US talking to British and Irish government officials in New York as well as leading journalists and many ordinary Americans.
Most Americans had little advice or hope to offer. They would like to see a peaceful solution acceptable to the Protestant and Roman Catholic communities in Northern Ireland, but they have little or no idea as to what that solution might be.
This view was summarized by Harold Mc-Cusker, the straight-talking official Unionist member of Parliament who represents the border county of Armagh in the Westminster House of Commons. He was one of three Ulster politicians who spent 30 days touring the US recently as guests of the US government.
He said: ''More than 95 percent of the ordinary people of America are not on tiptoe, worrying about Northern Ireland. The bulk of them see it as another of the world's irritant spots but not on the same scale as the Middle East. They are rather saddened by it all and they would like to see a solution, but they do not know what this solution might be. Certainly they are not losing any sleep over it.''
A similar view came from Dr. Joe Hend-ron, of the mainly Roman Catholic Social Democratic and Labour Party.
The feeling among British and Irish government officials, who share an interest in trying to combat violence and to promote a rational debate of the issue, was that in the main the major newspapers and periodicals have presented a balanced view of the complexities of Anglo-Irish relations. Television was seen to provide more news than analysis. But it was literally impossible to monitor the output in local broadcasting and newspapers or to counter the views contained therein.
Part of the problem has been the nature of television itself. An Irish official said, ''They tend not to want a solution that admits to extreme complexities.'' A British official said, ''The sight of the daughter of a hunger-striker on television is much more appealing than the appearance of a Northern Ireland minister of state like Mr. Adam Butler.''
During my visit in early October ''60 Minutes'' presented a tough investigative report on the provisional IRA's left-wing background and its links with Libyan and other organizations not usually associated by Americans with the Irish struggle. Such links have been explained to British viewers, but the program must have opened the eyes of many Americans.
It is difficult to assess the long-term effect of the hunger- strike publicity. In the short term it led to increased donations to Noraid, which collected some $250,000 a month in the six months since February this year compared to only $110,000 each month for the past seven years. But that is not to say that the IRA's case won endorsement across America.
Richard Mcauley of Provisional Sinn Fein in Belfast said, ''The British press were rather paranoic and gave the impression that we had the USA sewn up, which was not the case. At the same time we did make an impression in the USA because the media picked up the story. I think we came out ahead of the British in the short term but we have to think about the long term. A great deal of emotion was generated by the hunger strikes and a group like Noraid will have to build on that. This is exactly what is happening.''
Harold McCusker said: ''I was impressed by the attitudes of our representatives I met in America, but I could not help feeling that they were reacting to the hostility generated over the previous six months. If their positive attitudes had prevailed over the previous 10 years, they might not have found themselves fighting a rearguard action. If they continue the game they can beat the opposition back, but when you start at minus ten you have to fight your way back to zero.''
The British view in New York was that in all the circumstances, including the end of the hunger strikes, they had not done too badly but there were no illusions and officials were preparing for any counterattack on the publicity front. Whoever has won this particular phase of the battle, it is clear that the war over Ulster's image will go on.