Severe pressures are piling up on Margaret Thatcher to switch British government policy on Northern Ireland. The prime minister insists that she will not be bulldozed into concessions to what she calls men and women of violence acting beyond the law.
But the mounting pressures from extremists on both sides threaten to polarize Ulster still further and undermine the "Iron Lady's" efforts to find a way out of a problem that is depleting British patience and morale.
The demands from "Republicans" (favoring Northern Ireland's union with the largely Roman Catholic Irish Republic) have taken the form of a hunger strike by prisoners held in the Maze Prison near Belfast. For 50 days seven hunger-strikers from the Provisional wing of the illegal Irish Republican Army (IRA) have refused food in an effort to force Britain to give them "political status." This week they have been joined by a further 24 Republican inmates, with more threatening to follow suit.
The move is being seen as an attempt to apply steadily rising pressure on Mrs. Thatcher to change course and accept the need for a new official British policy.
Contrary pressures are being exerted by Ulster Protestant "Loyalists" (favoring continued ties with Britain) just as adamant that a policy change must not occur. Now Protestant parliamentarian the Rev. Ian Paisley is threatening virtual insurrection in the province if concessions are made.
The tense atmosphere has been heightened by last week's talks between Mrs. Thatcher and Irish Prime Minister Charles Haughey. Plans to arrange joint study groups between London and Dublin and hints that Mrs. Thatcher may be planning a new initiative on the Ulster question have alarmed Ulster's Protestant majority into fearing a sellout to the Roman Catholic south.
The British prime minister has denied any such intention, but Mr. Paisley has been able to secure a promise of talks with Mrs. Thatcher for next week. In the Republic of Ireland, and among Roman Catholics north of the border, the atmosphere is seen as encouraging new moves to resolve a crisis that has lasted for many years and has its roots in deep sectarian and cultural differences.
With two of the hunger-strikers said to be near death, and with many others of the 500 Republican prisoners in the Maze apparently prepared to join in, even moderate Ulster politicians, both Roman Catholic and Protestant, are expressing alarm. They fear that unless Mrs. Thatcher gives some ground to the IRA hunger-strikers, there will be violence at the Maze, followed by sectarian trouble elsewhere in the province.
Mr. Paisley has said that if Mrs. Thatcher and Mr. Haughey are plotting a major new initiative -- an idea strenuously denied in London and Dublin -- he will call his followers out in a series of protest marches almost certain to produce further violence.
Mrs. Thatcher's dilemma has been made more acute by the tit-for-tat demand of six Protestant Loyalist prisoners at the Maze for total segregation from IRA prisoners. They, too, have begun a hunger strike.
Mrs. Thatcher's options are being described here in London as highly restricted. She has placed the emphasis on quiet diplomacy and negotiations beyond the range of publicity. But she knows that a sellout to either side would land her in political trouble in Parliament at Westminster.
Mrs. Thatcher's position is made no easier by her refusal to reveal the details of her discussions in Dublin with Prime Minister Haughey. Despite denials, there is a widespread belief here that a secret formula is indeed under consideration. Ulster Protestants are alarmed lest the IRA blackmail their way to securing a fundamental switch in British government policy.