The task of finding agreement on a political solution for Northern Ireland has been made even more difficult by last week's election for a new parliament.
The results of the Oct. 20 election demonstrate a continuing polarization between political representatives of the 1 million Protestants and the half million Roman Catholics.
And the election further underlines significant support for Provisional Sinn Fein, the hard-line political wing of the Republican movement that wants reunification with the predominantly Roman Catholic Irish Republic. This is a direct threat to the Social Democratic and Labor Party (SDLP), which has been until now the politically unchallenged representative of Ulster's Catholics.
To add to the problem of finding agreement between the two communities, the electors voted in 47 Unionists who will dominate the 78-seat assembly and who have no intention of sharing political power with Roman Catholic politicians.
But James Prior, secretary of state for Northern Ireland, has emphasized that the assembly will go ahead. The first moves to choose an opening date for the Stormont (parliament) will be made this week by Mr. Prior after consultation with party leaders.
The Unionists, plus 10 elected members of the moderate Alliance Party, will take their seats. But the 14 members of the SDLP and five from Sinn Fein have already decided not to do so. The SDLP is boycotting because the Unionists will not share power and because the British have not given the new structure an all-Ireland dimension to meet the aspirations of the Catholics.
Sinn Fein wants a socialist republic combining Northern Ireland and the Irish Rebublic to the south. They won't take their seats because they refuse to cooperate with anything that has a British dimension.
To make life even more complicated for Mr. Prior, the Unionists will take their seats with the aim of persuading or compelling the British to drop all their demands for power-sharing with Catholics and in its place to settle for straight Protestant majority rule.
The party leaders have already analyzed the election results to suit themselves.
John Hume of the SDLP said ''the assembly is as dead as a dodo.'' Gerry Adams , the Sinn Fein leader who was imprisoned without trial by the British in the early '70s, said that the vote for his party represented further support for a British withdrawal from Northern Ireland. Mr. James Molyneaux, leader of the Official Unionists - the largest loyalist group - said that the election had left Mr. Prior ''with egg on his face.''
And the Rev. Ian Paisley, leader of the second biggest loyalist group, the Democratic Unionists, said that the election had seen the resurgence of Sinn Fein militancy. In Dublin, the Charles Haughey, the Irish prime minister, dismissed the election as ''a complete political mess.''
One of the few crumbs of comfort is the performance of the moderate Alliance Party which held the middle ground and won 10 seats. Significantly, too, the more moderate Official Unionists won 26 seats compared to the 21 of the more hard-line Democratic Unionists, thus establishing their right to speak for the largest group of Protestant opinion. It must be stressed, however, that both groups of Unionists still refuse to share power with Catholics.
Mr. Prior said, after the results had been announced, ''There is no question of there not being an assembly. We have got to persevere, and we don't give up just because a few people say they are not going to take part or because others say that it won't work. We have just to go patiently on. Everything in Northern Ireland is a setback, unless one expects miracles. I think that we owe it to the people of Northern Ireland and the people of the United Kingdom to keep on trying. I promise to go on trying to do what I can.''
Despite Mr. Prior's intention to persevere, political observers in Northern Ireland believe that the Stormont has a limited chance of success, unless Catholic representatives can be persuaded to take part - and at a price which will not in turn make Protestant politicians walk out.
If the assembly does fail, the British have little option but to continue ruling Northern Ireland directly from Westminster. In that event it is unlikely if another attempt at seeking political agreement in Ulster will be tried, at least for some time. The lesson of history is that political miracles do not take place in Northern Ireland.