Glimmers of hope as recession bottoms out in Northern Ireland

The people of Northern Ireland are facing another difficult year of political deadlock, terrorism, and high unemployment. Yet they are not without a glimmer of hope. Despite terrorist outrages and continued threats, the British and Irish governments are working more closely than ever to tackle the common enemy.

Concerning the economy, some experts believe the worst of the recession in Ulster may be over, though new jobs will be hard to find. And as ever the sheer resilience of the people in getting on with their daily business offers the best hope for the future.

Also, the death toll from terrorist strikes has decreased steadily since 1972 , despite some recent spectacular attacks.

The cooperation by both governments was underlined Jan. 10 when Northern Ireland Secretary James Prior traveled to Dublin to meet Irish Justice Minister Michael Noonan. No details of their discussions were released, but the meeting was regarded as mutually beneficial.

Politics continues to hold the key to the future. The long-awaited report from the New Ireland Forum is expected by St. Patrick's Day, March 17.

For nine months, members of the main Dublin political parties have been meeting with the Northern-based Social Democratic and Labor Party, which represents most Ulster Catholics. They hope to present a report on Irish unity that would attract northern Protestants.

Most Protestants, represented by the Democratic Unionists and Official Unionists, have remained aloof. But a number of individuals and Protestant groups have talked to the forum. They hope the final report will reflect the need for new thinking in the Republic if southerners are serious about wooing the North.

Meanwhile, Mr. Prior is working hard in the North to keep alive the Northern Ireland Assembly, the main platform available to Northern politicians. Only the Rev. Ian Paisley's hard-line Democratic Unionists and the moderate Alliance Party are still attending the assembly.

Even so, Mr. Prior is demonstrating political skill and patience. His view seems to be that while there's life, there's hope, and the assembly has not yet died.

The June elections in Ulster for three seats in the European Parliament will be a crucial test for Sinn Fein. The chief interest on the Catholic side will be whether the SDLP, which totally condemns violence, can hold off the challenge for one seat from Sinn Fein, which refuses to condemn out of hand the militarism of the Provisional wing of the illegal Irish Republican Army. The other two seats are likely to go to the Protestant Unionists.

The latest economic report from Coopers and Lybrand, the international consultants, suggests the disastrous downturn in the Ulster economy may have bottomed out. Senior partner Noel Stewart predicts ''some glimmer of hope upon which we can begin to build a more stable economic future.''

The Coopers and Lybrand reports have proved accurate in the past, and their more hopeful view is backed by the Confederation of British Industry, the local employers' organization. Barry Gibson, assistant regional CBI director, says, ''Some companies and sectors now see distinctly better signs.''

But the latest report from Cooperation North, an organization committed to improving north-south relationships, is gloomy. It suggests Northern Ireland's mid-term economic prospects remain ''exceptionally unattractive.''

On balance, however, the current economic reports are less doleful than in the past, and the catastrophic decline in Ulster manufacturing of 42 percent between 1972 and 1982 may indeed have bottomed out.

Meanwhile, the Irish Republican terrorist group that killed three Protestants in an attack on a South Armagh gospel hall two months ago has threatened to strike again. The Catholic Reaction Force stated Jan. 11 that it would carry out ''an operation'' which would send shock waves throughout Britain and Europe. It claimed that firm action had not been taken against part-time soldiers in the Ulster defense regiment following alleged attacks on Catholics.

Security forces believe the name Catholic Action Force is a cover for a splinter group of the outlawed Irish National Liberation Army, which aims to drive the British out of Northern Ireland by force.

Northern Ireland's prospects are thus bound up in a complexity of politics, economics, and continued onslaught by terrorists. Despite the troubles, life goes on as normally as possible. The talk in many households is more about schooling, jobs, and summer vacations than about the tired old complexities of politics and violence.

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