Washington — By most accounts Margaret Heckler didn't want the job of United States ambassador to Ireland. The talk in Washington when she was appointed last December was that the post was a way for her to save face after she was pushed out of President Reagan's Cabinet. But the job is not simply a diplomatic backwater. The former secretary of Health and Human Services (HHS) arrived in Dublin at what could be a pivotal time in relations between Ireland and Britain over troubled Northern Ireland.
Mrs. Heckler is receiving high marks for her role in supporting a new accord between the two countries aimed at reducing the sectarian violence in Ulster.
``It's one of those stories that has a happy ending,'' says Richard Messick, a specialist on Irish issues on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee staff. ``She speaks like a politician. People love her. She's been a big hit in Ireland.''
Since 1969 fighting between Protestants and Roman Catholics in Northern Ireland has claimed more than 2,500 lives -- which as a percentage of the population is the equivalent, notes Ambassador Heckler, of over 350,000 lives in the US.
``I hold my breath and say a prayer before turning on the television in the morning,'' she said in a recent interview with the Monitor.
But the new accord between Britain and Ireland signed last year has provided what she says is a ``historically significant'' chance for peace.
(British envoy to Northern Ireland defends the accord against Protestant wrath, Page 7.)
Under the accord, Britain granted to Dublin a formal consultative role in the affairs of Northern Ireland and agreed to abide by the wishes of the majority in Ulster, either for union with the United Kingdom or with Ireland.
In return, Dublin has agreed to respect British sovereignty over Northern Ireland so long as the majority wants it.
``The accord is only a framework; it's not the final resolution,'' says Heckler.
But she insists that the backing of the British and Irish parliaments and the strong personal support of British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher and Irish Prime Minister Garret FitzGerald make this a unique moment in the long history of efforts to find a solution to the violence which, in less than 20 years, has spawned more than 43,000 incidents of shooting, arson, and bombing.
``Other good documents have been drafted, but they have never succeeded,'' Heckler says.
``What's different this time is that we have never seen two governments committed to the resolution of the problems in the way Thatcher and FitzGerald are.''
So far, many of Ulster's roughly 1 million Catholics have adopted a ``wait and see'' attitude on the Anglo-Irish accord.
But Catholic extremists, led by members of the outlawed Irish Republican Army, have condemned the agreement as a sellout to Britain and have pledged to continue a campaign of violence until all British troops are removed from Ulster.
Meanwhile, leaders of the Protestant majority, led by the Rev. Ian Paisley and Enoch Powell, both members of the British Parliament from Northern Ireland, have accused Mrs. Thatcher of being a ``quisling,'' a reference to the Norwegian leader who collaborated with Hitler in the opening days of World War II. The two Protestant leaders resigned from Parliament to protest the accord.
Heckler says by misunderstanding ``both the process and the opportunities'' offered by the new accord, extremists on both sides have threatened the most significant opportunity for peace since the 1921 act of partition separated Ulster, where three-fifths of the population is Protestant, from predominantly Catholic Ireland.
To provide a symbolic show of support for moderate leaders who have taken risks for peace, Congress is currently debating two proposals calling for $250 million in aid to Northern Ireland over the next five years.
``The aid is an expression of the moral imperative of working out problems through reconciliation rather than violence,'' Heckler says. ``It's essential to create the sense that we are supporting what is fair and just for all concerned.''
When she was at HHS, Heckler's independent -- some say inept -- management style drew frequent criticism from administration conservatives. Persistent rumors circulated that White House chief of staff Donald Regan wanted her to resign. Heckler publicly vowed to fight to retain her job, but when she received little encouragement from the Oval Office, she finally relented. She submitted her resignation to the President, who persuaded her to assume the top job in Dublin.
Yet many observers agree the change was positive.
``Dublin would always prefer a career diplomat to a political appointee,'' says Shawn Cronin of the Irish Times. ``But she's won the praise of the government for being such a good cheerleader for the new accord.''
The political infighting that resulted in her departure from Washington took an obvious toll on Heckler's normally feisty spirit last year. But the diminutive former congresswoman from Massachusetts appears to have regained her characteristic zest for action.
Running a United States government agency with a $350 billion budget -- larger than that of most countries -- and 130,000 employees was a challenge, she concedes. But, says Margaret Heckler, HHS was a ``piece of cake'' compared to what she does now.