Belfast — British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher flew this week to Northern Ireland to visit troops injured in the Ballykelly bomb blast and to reassure the people of the province of her ''heartfelt sympathy.''
''Our thoughts are always with you,'' she told them.
In her surprise one-day visit, the first to Ulster in 18 months, she demonstrated once again her personal concern about the violence and the suffering in Northern Ireland and also her determination to back up the security forces in their fight against terrorism.
During her visit she managed to strike the right note of realism and Christmas spirit at the end of what has been a bad year for Northern Ireland. At time of writing 96 people have died in the violence this year. This is four fewer than the total for last year.
Despite the improvement, so far 21 have died in December - most in the Ballykelly explosion. The unemployment rate is 19.5 percent, and only this week the French tire maker, Michelin, announced the closure of its factory in North Belfast, with the loss of 2,000 jobs. This was a stiff blow, coming so soon after the closure of the DeLorean factory and several other plants this year.
In contrast to the economic gloom, there is much evidence of the Christmas spirit in Belfast and other parts of the province. The stores are reporting brisk trade, and late-night shopping has brought many thousands into the city center and given the city its old glow of night-time gaiety and color.
One of the heart-warming sights in Belfast is the daily vigil by the Anglican Dean of Belfast, the Very Rev. Samuel Crooks, who sits outside St. Anne's Cathedral collecting money for charity. His target is some $44,000 - which will go to needy people and organizations in both communities in Ulster as well as outside organizations.
The dean told The Christian Science Monitor that he is well on the way to his target. ''There are many people who look so badly off that I feel like giving something to them, but invariably it is they who give to me. The spirit of Christmas is very much alive here.''
Northern Ireland still faces considerable economic and political problems, but on the day the British prime minister dropped in with a word of encouragement, the Christmas spirit helped put the darkness in perspective.