Northern Ireland pushes on - despite August heat
Belfast — In the political and violent cauldron of Northern Ireland, August is invariably a hot month. Yet while the events of Aug. 12 (one civilian was killed by police and others injured at a rally in support of the Provisional wing of the illegal Irish Republican Army) are a setback to peacemaking efforts, they do not mark the beginning of a serious deterioration in the province's affairs.
The reaction from the Irish government has been muted, and strenuous efforts are being made to maintain closer understanding between Dublin and the British government in Westminster.
Unionist politicians in Ulster, representing the province's 1.5 million Protestants, are furious at the news media's exposure of the tough police tactics in trying to arrest Martin Galvin, the publicity director of the New York-based Irish Northern Aid Committee at the west Belfast rally. The unionists expressed strong backing for the police tactics after a heated debate Aug. 22 in the Northern Ireland Assembly.
The police have been condemned by nationalist politicians representing the province's half-million Roman Catholics, who still refuse to attend the Assembly , the major forum for public debate in the province.
But once the immediate anger has been expressed and accusations and counteraccusations have been made, the politicians will have to face two problems that refuse to go away: how to police a divided community and how to bring long-term peace that will ensure stablity and prosperity for a province with many social ills and chronic unemployment.
Ironically the Aug. 12 violence and its aftermath (which included rioting against the police in Protestant areas over the use of police informers in local courts), came at a time of relative peace and signs of stability.
On Aug. 6, Ian Hill, public relations manager of the Tourist Board, predicted a record year for tourists and looked to a 5 percent increase on last year's revenue record of (STR)170 million ($221 million). On Aug. 8, the Shorts Aircraft firm in Belfast rolled out the first of the 18 Sherpa transport aircraft it is building for the US Air Force, a contract worth (STR)120 million ($156 million). The next day the Belfast shipyard of Harland and Wolff announced a (STR)100 million contract with oil giant British Petroleum.
These stories of slow but steady progress and of relatively good news for Northern Ireland were overshadowed by the police fiasco only a few days later.
The events that precipitated the west Belfast incident were predictable, as the Provisional Sinn Fein (the IRA's political arm) and the IRA produced Martin Galvin at their rally, despite a British government ban to exclude him from the United Kingdom. It was also predictable that the police would try to arrest Galvin and that the media would be present.
The police miscalculated, however, and were recorded on television as brutal and incompetent - even though they have worked hard, and with some success, in recent years to reassure the Catholic minority that they are neither brutal nor incompetent.
The short-term result is to attract more money and recruits for the Provisional wing of the IRA, which has won another round in the propaganda war. The longer-term effects for the Royal Ulster Constabulary (RUC) are serious. The chief constable, Sir John Hermon, has set up an inquiry under his deputy, Michael Mcatamney, a Roman Catholic. British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher has rejected requests from Labour opposition leader Neil Kinnock for an independent inquiry.
Whatever the police inquiry produces, its findings will be questioned because the RUC will be regarded by the public as judge and jury. The rank-and-file policemen will have to continue trying to reassure the Catholic minority. The immediate political reactions, though abrupt and outspoken, are unlikely to damage the long-term search for accord.
The Irish government confined itself to a formal expression of ''serious concern'' and asked that ''appropriate action'' be taken.
This is an indication on the part of both governments to maintain the rapport achieved in recent months between James Prior, secretary of state for Northern Ireland, and Ireland's foreign minister, Peter Barry, and his Dublin colleagues. This mood of partnership is likely to be continued during the autumn meeting of Mrs. Thatcher and Irish Premier Garret FitzGerald.
The British government has yet to give its formal reaction to the report of the New Ireland Forum, which produced a nationalist blueprint for a series of options on a form of Irish unity that would attract northern Protestants. It is unlikely that the British can accept any of these, in the face of continued Ulster Protestant opposition to Irish unity.
But there may be some attempt to encourage greater London-Dublin cooperation by the formation of an Anglo-Irish parliamentary grouping. In the current atmosphere both governments are eager not to be seen quarreling about an incident in Belfast that might prove to be isolated, however regrettable and unfortunate it was.
Meanwhile, despite the rhetoric of the past week, in Belfast there are quiet moves afoot to try to break the political logjam. Informal talks have been scheduled between the main parties to seek some way to establish a useful dialogue.
The unionists hope the nationalists will agree to take part in the assembly, which cannot last indefinitely without them. The nationalists, in turn, are eager to include some form of all-Ireland dimension. This in turn will alienate the unionists. But at least the tentative private talks are better than bitter abuse in public, and stony silence in private.
Officially, politics are in limbo as the province awaits Mrs. Thatcher's announcement of James Prior's successor in Belfast. The sooner she does so, the better it will be for those engaged in the tentative talks, they say.
Despite the mistakes, and the tragedies, there is some qualified hope that slow political and economic progress will be made. Catholic Bishop Cahal Daly summed up the short- and long-term effect of the Aug. 12 incident: ''The only beneficiaries of these happenings are those people whose energies are devoted to stoking the fires of hate and violence in the community. The sufferers are those who carry on the difficult task of working towards reconciliation and peace.''