LONDON — ESCALATING sectarian violence in Northern Ireland is forcing the main British political parties to rethink their policies toward the troubled province.
Leading supporters of the Conservative government are saying current policies have reached a dead end. The opposition Labour Party is firmly committed to major policy initiatives in Northern Ireland, and favors the unification of Ireland by consent.
A spate of bombings and revenge killings by the illegal Irish Republican Army and Protestant paramilitary groups in recent weeks has triggered a renewed buildup of British forces in the province, where an additional 1,000 troops arrived Jan. 18. Also it is prompting calls from unionist (mostly Protestant) politicians for a crackdown on known and suspected terrorists and the selective internment of the worst offenders.
But simultaneously, Britain's ruling Conservatives and the Labour opposition are being compelled to look beyond containment of terrorism to focus on a lasting political settlement.
Both the Conservatives and Labour will soon be under heavy pressure to switch from what many British politicians (and, according to opinion polls, a majority of British voters) have come to regard as the dead-end policy of trying to cope with Northern Ireland violence by using police and military containment, according to Brendan O'Leary, author of a forthcoming book on Northern Ireland's troubles entitled, "The Politics of Antagonism."
The new policies' thrust is likely to emerge more fully after Britain's general election, now expected to be held not later than May. Much of Labour's policy for Ireland is already in the public domain. Policies currently being entertained by the two main parties include a political solution directly imposed by the British Parliament.
Another, more limited move being urged on the London authorities is the setting up of a special select committee of the House of Commons to deal with Northern Ireland affairs. Parliament committee
Paul Bew, professor of politics at Queen's University, Belfast, described such a committee as "a means whereby Northern Ireland's politicians of both religious communities could be drawn more fully into the affairs of the province."
A Conservative MP with lengthy experience in Ulster said the point was near when the government in London might have to "lay down the law" to the politicians in Belfast. He claimed his view was shared by increasing numbers of Conservatives.
"The Ulster politicians could be told that Britain wanted to move in the direction of proposing that authority over the province be shared between Dublin and London," the MP said.
This, he said, could be done by "developing the provisions of the 1985 Anglo-Irish agreement" and "edging Ulster politicians of both religious communities toward acceptance of the need for power-sharing" in Belfast.
Such ideas are far from being official British policy. Prime Minister John Major consistently puts the stress on defeating the terrorists. But the fact that reform proposals are being canvassed, even privately, by leading Conservatives reflects growing frustration that 22 years of British troop deployment in Northern Ireland has failed to yield a political solution.
The debate on Northern Ireland's future has been growing against a background of rising violence. Also, there has been bitter controversy centered on Peter Brooke, secretary of state for Northern Ireland and author of a partly successful attempt last year to stage "talks about talks" between Ulster unionist and nationalist politicians.
An IRA bomb attack Jan. 17 killed seven building workers - all Protestants - who had been employed by the British forces on construction sites. The incident was called the worst in several months. Unionist outrage intensified within a few hours of the incident when Mr. Brooke appeared on a live television chat show in Dublin, capital of the Irish Republic, and agreed to take part in a sing-along.
The following day the Rev. Ian Paisley, leader of Northern Ireland's Democratic Unionists, called for Brooke's resignation. "I cannot see him reestablishing his credibility after this," Paisley said. Amid continuing Unionist protests, Brooke offered his resignation Jan. 20 to Prime Minister Major who was visiting Belfast. Major declined it, and dismissed suggestions that Brooke was a "lame duck" minister.
Unionist calls for more troops to be sent to Northern Ireland are placing Major in a dilemma and are tending to increase the pressure for achieving a political solution. Under his government's new "peace dividend" defense policies the British Army is to be cut from 140,000 to 104,000 men. No allowance is made for permanent substantial reinforcement of Northern Ireland, but that is what many Unionists are demanding.
Col. Philip Howes, a member of a British pressure group Friends of the Union, says: "The main need is for much better security on the border between north and south...." But British defence ministry sources say sealing the border would require a permanent military presence and a great increase in troop numbers. Toward political solution
The longer-term impossibility of finding enough troops to stifle IRA activity completely is helping to fuel attempts by British Conservatives and the Labour Party to work out political solutions. Dr. O'Leary considers that Labour has the more sophisticated policy approach and says the party's victory at the general election would mark "an important shift in London's strategic outlook on Irish affairs."
He added: "Labour is formally committed to seeking the unification of Ireland by consent and insists that it would not allow the Unionists to veto desirable change in the north. In addition it would extend civil liberties in the province and take measures to tighten up employment laws."