London is preparing a new Northern Ireland initiative aimed at reducing violence in the province and opening up better lines of political communication with the government in Dublin.
The move is being worked on by Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher's Ulster secretary, James Prior. Mr. Prior is convinced that if nothing is done soon, enmity between Roman Catholics and Protestants in Northern Ireland will continue to deepen.
Mr. Prior is using the publication of a report last week by the New Ireland Forum, which represents the leading parties in the Republic of Ireland and political moderates in Ulster, as the opportunity to float a new initiative.
Three proposals are likely to dominate the Prior formula, which government insiders say he is prepared to do solid battle for inside the Thatcher Cabinet:
* Joint authority by London and Dublin on security arrangements, especially on the Ulster-Ireland border.
* Devolved government in the Northern Ireland capital, Belfast, based on political power-sharing between Catholics and Protestants willing to take part.
* A joint London-Dublin parliamentary council to supervise administrative arrangements. In line with the New Ireland Forum report, Mr. Prior will argue that sovereignty over Northern Ireland, now vested in London, will be unaffected.
In making his new bid for reducing tension in Ulster, Prior is assuming a thankless task. Even Mrs. Thatcher is reported to be lukewarm about fresh attempts to find a peace formula because of the record of failure.
But, like Prior, she knows that the political atmosphere in Ulster is worsening and that a policy of doing nothing would probably accelerate this process.
Prior's job is made no easier by the failure of Sinn Fein (the political wing of the illegal Irish Republican Army) and the Ulster Unionists to involve themselves in the New Ireland Forum or in the work of the Northern Ireland Assembly.
But he sees the forum report as a possible turning point in Ulster's descent into violence. One section of the document reflected Dublin's alarm at increasing lawlessness in the province.
The Irish prime minister, Garret FitzGerald, is throwing his support behind carefully calculated attempts to reduce sectarian tension. Prior wants to take advantage of the mood in Dublin by attempting to further isolate Sinn Fein in Ulster.
Although he dare not say so, the Ulster secretary also believes the Unionists of Northern Ireland will isolate themselves if they attempt to block all change whatsoever.
That is why he will place the emphasis not on sovereignty but on administrative measures aimed at curbing terrorist activity.
If either Protestants or Catholics oppose, for example, cross-border cooperation on security they will find it difficult to defend their negative stance. Prior is aiming at a subtle shift of mood in Ulster, using London-Dublin cooperation as a lever.
He has been helped by the absence in the forum report of any demand that Britain withdraw its forces from Northern Ireland.
A step by step approach will be used by Prior to launch his new initiative.
He will first place his proposals before the Cabinet in London suggesting, some reports indicate, that if they are not accepted he may resign.
Once his policy is accepted by the Thatcher government, he will open private talks with the political parties in Ulster stressing initially the security implications of the measures he proposes.
Depending on progress, Prior will later arrange talks with the Irish prime minister to enlist Dublin's formal support. British political sceptics are already predicting that Prior's new initiative is doomed to failure, but the Northern Ireland secretary is no doubt right in thinking that the London government cannot simply sit on its hands and watch the Ulster violence worsen.
Momentum is fast becoming the watchword in the Northern Ireland office. Without attempts to move forward, the situation in Ulster will deteriorate.
Government sources say Prior will seek to get his new proposals off the ground within the next eight weeks.