Nudging Northern Ireland

The attitudes are at least as important as the mechanisms in Britain's new plan for starting Northern Ireland back toward home rule. If these freshly constructive attitudes prevail, the mechanisms can be made to work - contrary to immediate charges that they are unworkable. There is a note of hope in the report that the main parties in Northern Ireland are prepared to participate in the proposed provincial elections, even though the plan has been criticized by all except the Alliance Party.

These elections would be for a 78-member assembly with limited legislative powers. They would be held in the fall, assuming that Parliament enacts the enabling bill this summer as intended.

James Prior, Britain's secretary of state for Northern Ireland, deserves great credit for persisting in bringing matters this far. It is he who has established the aforementioned constructive attitudes. They recognize the need for moving Northern Ireland away from Britain's direct rule of the past decade - but only so far and in such a manner as the Northern Irish can agree upon. His approach is not to impose the future on them but to help them forge it for themselves through ''rolling devolution'' of power. He talks of small steps of acceptance rather than instant broad agreement. He seeks to provide the conditions in which progress can be made through consensus between the Protestant majority and growing Roman Catholic minority in Ulster's sectarian political scene. The goal is to elicit the skills and energies of Northern Ireland's own potential leaders.

The proposed assembly would not only have consultative and deliberative functions, with the authority to form committees, monitor provincial government departments, scrutinize draft legislation for Ulster, and have its views presented to Parliament. It would also be asked to make recommendations on how a home-rule administration for Northern Ireland should be formed and how executive power should be transferred step by step from Westminster. Here wide acceptance would be ensured through requiring agreement by 70 percent of assembly members. However, proposals with less than 70 percent approval could be passed on to Parliament by the secretary of state for Northern Ireland if he judged them to command both Protestant and Roman Catholic support.

Indeed, at every stage Mr. Prior looks for flexibility allowing the emergence of fair solutions and responsible leadership. As he has said, the parties in Northern Ireland have enormous power to block and wreck. He is challenging them to ''apply their undoubted power and undoubted ability in a more positive and constructive way.''

Parliament and Northern Ireland's people now have a new opportunity to go in this direction and away from Ulster's tragic history. As Mr. Prior also said: ''We have to give those many men and women in Northern Ireland who reject extremism and violence much more solid ground to work on. . . . They can never win while effective power and responsibility is denied them.''

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