There are strong indications that the Northern Ireland question is moving forward into a new phase. This follows last week's decision by Irish Republican Army (IRA) prisoners to abandon their hunger-strike without having gained significant political concessions -- a move seen here as a major victory over terrorism for Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher's government.
This, in turn, comes two weeks after Mrs. Thatcher made her surprise Dec. 8 visit to Dublin for a brief summit conference with Irish Prime Minister Charles J. Haughey. The Thatcher-Haughey talks laid the groundwork for greater British-Irish cooperation, leading to rumors that the two leaders had decided on a new approach to Northern Ireland.
The decision of 7 members of the illegal 'provisional' IRA to end their 53 -day fast is being hailed here as a significant breakthrough in the long war of nerves between London and the men and women of violence in Ulster.
At Westminster, Northern Ireland Secretary Humphrey Atkins told the House of Commons that the demands of the seven hunger strikers, along with 33 others who had joined the protest, for "political status" had not been met. IRA spokesmen contested this, claiming the prisoners had won political status "in everything but name," and in future would not wear prison uniform or carry out prison work.
IT was announced later that the "dirty protest" by nearly 500 prisoners at Belfast's Maze Prison would soon end as well. The prisoners had been living in filth, and refusing to use sanitary facilities, to dramatize their demands. This too was seen here as an important gain for Mrs. Thatcher and her government.
Key developments suggesting that a new phase in Ulster's troubled history may be opening, include:
* The Ulster Protestant leader, the Rev. Ian Paisley, told Prime Minister Thatcher to her face that she was about to betray the people of Ulster. After a 35-minute meeting in her Westminster office, Mrs. Thatcher issued a public statement saying she had been "deeply wounded" by Mr. Paisley's allegation that at the Dublin summit meeting she and Mr. Haughey had decided to "sell out" Ulster's Protestant majority.
* After Mr. Paisley called for a referendum on the future of Northern Ireland among voters in the rest of Britain, a respected London newspaper, the Sunday Times, published a public opinion poll showing 63 percent in favor of ending the link between London and Belfast. Mr. Paisley believes a referendum would produce a result in favor of keeping Ulster in the union, but he appears to have seriously misjudged the public mood in Britain.
* In the wake of the Dublin summit, the rumors continue to circulate suggesting that Mrs. Thatcher and Mr. Haughey have worked out a new line of approach to the Irish question. The popular catch-phrase is "IONA" -- an acronym for islands of the North Atlantic.
The idea is that the United Kingdom and the Irish Republic have vital strategic concerns in common, and that unity of purpose is in their joint interest. The Ulster problem, in this context, is seen as a dangerous distraction, and sources close to the British Prime Minister suggest that in the near future a powerful effort will be made to put Northern Ireland into a broader perspective.
The chairman of the Conservative Party's Northern Ireland committee, John Biggs-Davidson, favors the "IONA" approach. After the Maze Prison hunger strike ended, he publicly urged all concerned to look for ways of ending the violence.
Mr. Paisley's angry confrontation with Mrs. Thatcher is thought to have reflected his fear that the "IONA" approach will make it more difficult for him in future to gain publicity. The result of the Sunday Times public opinion poll has certainly undermined his opinion that the bulk of Britons see the retention of Ulster within the union as a high priority.
Mrs. Thatcher is said to be convinced that the British government is on the point of gaining the psychological upper hand over the IRA. She feels that it is vital to follow up on the decision to abandon the hunger strike and the "dirty protest."
At Westminster, the House of Commons was almost entirely unanimous in applauding Mrs. Thatcher's handling of the hunger protest. Observers said they could not recall a time in the last decade when the mood of parliament was so solemn and united on the Ulster issue.