As the dust settles after the British general election, the craggy, violence-worn face of Ireland looks pretty much the same. The reappointment of James Prior as British secretary of state for Northern Ireland confirms that British government policy in the province has not budged. The election results in the 17 Ulster constituencies merely underlined the divisions along religious and political lines. Mr. Prior stays on in a province that is stultified by political deadlock and faces chronic unemployment and a serious lack of inward investment.
The election, however, did answer two basic questions. Protestants showed that they favor the Official Unionists, who received 34 percent of the total vote, over Rev. Ian Paisley's right-wing Democratic Unionists, who trailed with 20 percent. Both unionist parties want to retain links with Britain.
On the Roman Catholic side, the Social Democratic and Labour Party (SDLP), which wants a united Ireland by peaceful means, retained an edge over the Provisional Sinn Fein, the political wing of the Irish Republican Army, to a certain extent. But the steady growth of Sinn Fein, which is eating into the support for the constitutional politics of the SDLP, worries all the other parties.
Sinn Fein cut nearly in half (from 8.7 to 4.5 percentage points) the SDLP's lead since last October, when the Northern Ireland assembly elections were held. Sinn Fein took 13.4 percent of the vote, up from 10.1 percent last fall; the SDLP received 17.9 percent, down from 18.8 percent.
The victory of provisional Sinn Fein Vice-President Gerry Adams in West Belfast at the expense of veteran campaigner Gerry Fitt of the SDLP made major headlines. His success has to be balanced against the combined number of votes cast for Mr. Fitt and the SDLP's Dr. Joe Hendron.
If Fitt or Hendron had given the other a clear run, Sinn Fein would have been defeated. Province-wide, over 100,000 opted for Sinn Fein, which some observers regard as a vote for violence. It should be stressed, however, that 86 percent opposed them by voting for other parties.
On the Protestant side, Reverend Paisley's booming voice will still be heard at Westminster, though his Democratic Unionist Party is disappointed about taking only three seats. The Official Unionists are elated with their 11 seats, and their team includes the controversial Enoch Powell, who scraped home by 547 votes in South Downs. The moderate Alliance Party held the limited center ground with 8 percent of votes, but failed to win a seat.
Two personnel changes could prove particularly significant. John Hume, leader of the SDLP, was his party's only member elected to Westminster. He will bring to London his considerable eloquence and consummate grasp of Irish politics and will argue a forceful case for peaceful Irish nationalism, at the center of the British political stage.
Gerry Adams, in keeping with Sinn Fein tradition, will not take his seat, but he will probably try to create maximum national and international publicity by coming to London as an member of Parliament who, until his election, was banned from entering the country. (Because he is now an MP, the British have been forced to revoke their ban.)
With the Ulster divisions yet again underlined through this election, Mr. Prior will need all his political diplomacy to keep alive the Northern Ireland assembly which he, more than anyone else, was responsible for creating. He faces increasing opposition from unionists who will demand real powers for the assembly, even though there is little prospect of meeting a basic British requirement to share power with Catholics.