FitzGerald election could stall Ulster peace process

The 60-year search for peace in Northern Ireland, already difficult, is expected to slow down for a time now that a coalition prime minister has taken over in Dublin.

Garret FitzGerald, elected by the Irish Dail (parliament) June 30 as head of a Fine Gael-Labour Party alliance, does want to continue the talks with Britain begun last December.

It is understood he would like an early meeting with British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher to try to keep up momentum.

But he commands a bare majority of seats after an election that showed significant support for H-block hunger strikers in Belfast and the Republican cause in general.

He lacks the political strength to push through the kind of decisions that Britain evidently hopes the talks could produce.

Moreover, Dr. FitzGerald has said repeatedly that he wants to involve in the talks the north's 1 million majority Protestants -- and it is that majority that most distrusts them.

When Mrs. Thatcher started the talks with the previous prime minister, Charles J. Haughey, they were widely seen as one road toward peace despite Northern Protestant fears of being pushed closer to the 3.5 million Roman Catholics in the south.

Protestant spokesmen, notably, Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) leader and Westminster member of Parliament, the Rev. Ian Paisley, had attacked the talks vehemently and the joint studies they have generated.

The studies, still secret, cover: new political institutions, cross-border security, economic plans, citizenship, and measures to build mutual confidence.

One idea reportedly under study: an Anglo-Irish council, to include elected members to the Dail and to Westminster.Some of the British MPs would be drawn from Ulster.

Even if Dr. FitzGerald does meet Mrs. Thatcher soon, he would still need some months to review progress so far -- while he also grapples with inflation (21 percent), unemployment (over 10 percent), a budget deficit, and a growing balance-of-payments gap.

Meanwhile, any move toward Britain, or any crackdown on the Provisional wing of the illegal Irish Republican Army (IRA) while Maze prisoners are on hunger strike, will arouse opposition in the south.

Political analysts in Dublin were surprised by the almost 40,000 votes polled by nine H- block prisioner candidates in the June 11 poll. Two were actually elected in constituencies bordering the north.

One, on hunger strike, is likely to die before long. That would mean a by-election and a new opportunity for IRA supporters to generate pressures against the Anglo-Irish talks.

On the economic front, Dr. FitzGerald favors antiinflation measures, but enough government spending to ensure that unemployment does not rise by very much. Economists say he needs to reduce Irish debt abroad and enforce austerity measures at home -- but his slim majority will make it difficult.

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