The election to the British Parliament of an Irish Republican Army (IRA) hunger-striker and convicted prisoner has thrown Northern Ireland politics into even greater than usual turmoil.
It has increased polarization between Protestants and Roman Catholics. It has made bridge building more difficult. and it has increased the chances of a hard-line Protestant victory in the province-wide local council elections on May 20.
Bobby Sands, leader of the IRA at the Maze prison near Belfast, is dedicated to forcing a British withdrawal from Northern Ireland.
He narrowly defeated Harry West, a bluff farmer and former Unionist leader dedicated to maintaining the British link, in a by-election in the beautifully rural but deeply divided constituency of Fermanagh and South Tyrone. Sands, serving a 14-year sentence for hijacking and firearms offenses, had a majority of 1,446 votes in a total poll of nearly 60,000. Forty-one days before the election, Sands began a prison hunger strike to try to force the British to grant political status (noncriminal status) to IRA prisoners. His election victory is hailed by the IRA as a public endorsement by Catholics of their campaign for political status. Most Protestants see it as proof that the Catholics back the IRA campaign of violence.
Detached observers have tried to point out that this election result cannot be taken as representative of Northern Ireland as a whole. Fermanagh and South Tyrone have a Catholic majority that has always voted solidly anti-Unionist. The vote could be regarded, therefore, as anti-Unionist rather than pro-IRA. But most Protestants fail to grasp this subtle point, and the election result has widened the rift that lies beneath all politics in this province.
In the aftermath of last year's futile attempts by the British to find common ground among Ulster politicians, there was a sullen stalemate.
However on Dec. 8 British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher met Irish Premier Charles Haughey in Dublin and a communique from their historic Anglo-Irish talks sent political tremors throughout Ireland. The premiers declined to give specific details, but they announced a series of cross-border studies on energy, tourism, and other matters. They also announced a "special consideration for the totality of relationships within these islands." The phrase could mean everything or nothing.
But the Dublin government and northern Catholic leaders chose to believe that the British were more willing to involve Dublin in trying to settle the Northern Ireland problem. Brian Lenihan, the Irish Foreign Minister, went so far as to say that he could envisage a united Ireland within 10 years as a result of the Anglo-Irish talks.
Mrs. Thatcher tried hard to allay Protestant fears about a special deal with Dublin.On March 5 she flew specially to Belfast and said: "There is no sellout. Those who argue otherwise have simply got it wrong or are choosing not to understand the purpose of my discussions with Mr. Haughey." She even announced special help for Ulster people hardpressed by high energy costs.
Nevertheless Protestant fears remain, and they have been exploited by the Rev. Ian Paisley, leader of the minority Protestant Democratic Unionist Party. He held a series of rallies that had the trappings of comic opera but were deadly serious.
Paisley tried to emulate a former Protestant hero, Lord Carson, who had protected unionist interests as far back as 1912, when Irish unity outside British control looked imminent.Paisley's support has been much less today, but he has shown that he can mobilize men who are prepared to use violence to maintain the union.
The next major test of public opinion will come on May 20 when 526 local government seats will be decided at the polls. A clear-cut victory for Paisley would lead to more direct confrontation between Mrs. Thatcher and Ulster Protestants about her Dublin overtures.
The result of the April 10 election of an IRA man to Westminster will confirm many Protestant views that Catholics cannot be trusted, and this should strengthen Paisley's bid for the undisputed Protestant leadership. As time goes by, the evidenc e for compromise in Ulster becomes less and less.