N. Ireland under Prior lurches forward with uncertainty

A week in politics is a long time, but a year of politics in Northern Ireland can seem like a lifetime.

James Prior, secretary of state for Northern Ireland, can look back on his first year in office with mixed feelings. There has been some progress on security, but the Northern Ireland economy continues to worsen. There is as yet little sign of a political settlement.

Shortly after Mr. Prior's arrival last year, the province came dangerously close to widespread civil conflict. The Irish Republican Army murder of the Rev. Robert Bradford led to sustained Protestant anger and the formation of a private army by the Rev. Ian Paisley to combat Republican terrorism. Prior kept his cool in the face of considerable Protestant hostility.

The police and Army continued with their painstaking war of attrition. Helped by an unprecedented flow of information from terrorist sources, the detection rate increased. So far the number of deaths this year has dropped to 42, compared to 101 for the same period last year. The number of explosions has similarly dropped from 398 to 173.

While Prior can take some comfort from these statistics, unemployment continues to worsen. In the past year it has risen from around 17 percent to nearly 20 percent. The factors are not hard to find: world recession, government cutbacks, and the lack of new investment in Northern Ireland.

There have been occasional brighter moments. A consortium of mostly Saudi businessmen announced Sept. 15 a $100 million investment in the Lear Fan executive jet project in Belfast. They also set up a new parent company, Fan Holdings Inc. of Delaware. If all goes well the project could employ more than 2 ,000 within five years. Unfortunately Lear Fan is one of only few major bright spots on a mainly dark horizon.

The bleak economic outlook merges neatly with Prior's paramount problem of finding political agreement in Ulster. As long as political agreement remains elusive, it is hard to attract new investors.

With considerable political courage - some critics call it misjudgment - Prior presented a plan by which some measure of self-government could be allowed. There was one major requirement. Local politicans would have to demonstrate willingness to share political power and responsibility.

So far they have not done this. The Unionist politicians, representing the province's 1 million Protestants, do not want to share power with Roman Catholic politicans whom they regard as all-Ireland Republicans. The Catholic politicans, representing the 500,000-strong minority in the province, say they don't think power-sharing is possible. They continue to seek, in the long term, an all-Ireland solution. So the stalemate remains. Only the minority Alliance Party of moderates is willing to give power-sharing a try.

Prior and the British are persisting with the Oct. 20 elections for an assembly that seem doomed to failure unless there are dramatic changes of attitude soon. Failure to find political agreement in Ulster will probably not badly damage Prior's image in Britain. The unofficial feeling in Westminster may be that the Irish problem is insoluble anyway.

In personal terms however, Jim Prior may feel disheartened. He said shortly after his arrival, ''basically I do trust people and I've always given them the benefit of the doubt. . . .'' The next few weeks may give him cause for reflection and reassessment.

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