Ulster: the Thatcher touch

Britain's Prime Minister Thatcher has been living up to the best sense of her "iron lady" reputation in the extraordinarily difficult matter of Northern Ireland. She stood firm against both Roman Catholic and Protestant extremists in the threatening episode of the hunger strike by Irish Republican Army (IRA) prisoners. She went to Dublin for meetings with Prime Minister Haughey in only the second Anglo-Irish summit there in sixty years. She -- and everyone else concerned with peaceful change in Northern Ireland -- can take satisfaction in the results.

Not that all has been tranquil since. The Provisional wing of the IRA has resumed terrorist acts and warned of more of them in its campaign against the presence of British troops in Ulster. Mrs. Thatcher has had to suffer the figurative slings and arrows of vituperative Protestant leader Ian Paisley. There remain many obstacles to political progress.

But the hunger strikers did end their fast without martyrdom and the violence that martyrdom was predicted to bring. Mrs. Thatcher did not grant them their demand of political prisoner status; she did grant improvements in prison conditions merited in themselves.

And the Dublin summit brought joint initiatives to be carried forward this year. Neither Mrs. Thatcher nor Mr. Haughey backtracked on their countries' previous assurances that there would be no change in the status of Northern Ireland without approval of the majority there. But their efforts -- along with some underway in the European Community -- could bring about an easing of tensions through economic, social, and atmospheric factors while political issues still are being worked out.

Things work slowly in the EC's young European Parliament. But a resolution is making its way there which would designate Northern Ireland as a "pilot region" of Europe with the advantages of plans and funding from the community. The British government has lent its support, and eventual passage could contribute to an evolving larger role for Northern Ireland without leaving the United Kingdom.

On the nearer horizon are the studies to be made for closer Anglo-Irish cooperation coming out of the Dublin summit. These are to cover a whole range of issues, such as whether Britons in the Irish Republic should have the right to vote there as Irish citizens do in Britain. There could be further joint means of security and law enforcement such as the ones that already have IRA leaders concerned.

It is said that the agreement that could be achieved might be compared to the 1963 Franco-German friendship treaty which consolidated a reconciliation between the two peoples with many constructive results.

Beyond all the nuts and bolts it is this kind of atmosphere for solution that can speed the hopes raised by Mrs. Thatcher's strong stance on the Northern Ireland question. It would be in keeping with queen Elizabeth's Christmas message that, amid all the conflict and pain on the human scene, "the world we would like to see can only come from the goodness of the heart." She quoted the grand old hymn:

"Now give us, we pray thee, the spirit of love,/ The gift of true wisdom that comes from above,/ The spirit of service that has naught of pride,/ The gift of true courage, and thee as our guide.

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