Ulster pins its hopes on FitzGerald winning Irish poll

Northern Ireland will be watching closely for the outcome of next week's election in the Irish Republic.

If Charles Haughey and his opposition Republican Party win Feb. 18, and if his harder-line on the north prevails, he will be met with equally hard resistance from northern Protestants.

If Prime Minister Garret FitzGerald retains leadership there are some hopes that his cautious policy of trying to get to know northerners and to make basic changes in his own backyard might encourage a more reasonable line from the north on many kinds of cross-border relations.

At the moment the polls have the two parties neck and neck, although FitzGerald is personally far more popular than Haughey.

Prime Minister FitzGerald, who is also the leader of the coalition party which was toppled from power by a vote of no-confidence in its harsh budget, is regarded in Ulster as less threatening than the opposition leader Charles Haughey, who heads the Republican Party.

Northern Unionists, who wish to retain the link with Britain, know that both men are committed to a united Ireland. The difference lies in their aproach.

Mr. Haughey has said repeatedly that Northern Ireland is a failed political entity. He believes that no political solution can be achieved in a purely Northern Ireland context because most of the north's 500,000 Roman Catholics want a united Ireland.

The Haughey view is that the Dublin and British governments' should agree on an all-Ireland dimension to a settlement and that the Unionists would have no option but to agree. In such a context his government would be generous to Northern Unionists once they came to a conference table to discuss Irish unity. Such an approach is bitterly opposed by all shades of northern Unionism.

Dr. FitzGerald wants Irish unity in the long term, but he argues that there will have to be radical changes in the Irish Republic to make a united country more attractive to the north's one million Protestants. As prime minister he has embarked on a ''constitutional crusade'' to try to make the Irish public aware of the changes needed. Philip Whitfield reports from Dublin:

Ireland's politicians find themselves in an election brought on by an economic crisis that has backfired on them. For, like the country so badly in debt, they cannot afford the razzmatazz and luxury of an expensive campaign.

And that is what the Feb. 18 election is surely about - the degree of austerity required to lift the country out of its economic malaise.

Garret FitzGerald's government -- a coalition partnership of his own United Ireland Party and the tiny Labour Party -- was defeated on Jan. 27. Then a handful of independents combined with the opposition Republican Party, led by Charles Haughey, to vote down a package of budget measures designed to restore financial rectitude to the country's overborrowed public finances.

But having brought down the government Mr. Haughey has done a complete about-face and said if he is the leader of the next government he will introduce a budget broadly similar to Dr. FitzGerald's.

He appears to have accepted the need to curb public spending and reduce Ireland's dependence on foreign borrowing.

Mr. Haughey also claims to have a package ready to halt the rise in unemployment. Currently more than 1 in 9 of the workforce is on unemployment compensation.

But while accepting that unemployment and rising prices are the key issues, the electorate is remarkably apathetic towards the major parties' proposals.

Opinion polls suggest the Republican Party and the coalition parties are neck and neck -- each with 47 percent of the vote.

Mr. Haughey, however, is 30 poll points behind Dr. Fitzgerald when the voters are asked who is the most credible leader.

Their face to face television confrontation next week could determine the election.

Even the Provisional wing of the illegal Irish Republican Army (IRA) who are fielding seven candidates under their political wing Sinn Fein, have marked their campaign by stressing economic matters.

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