Local Ulster politicians are angered by the sudden departure for Westminster of Douglas Hurd, who has been secretary of state for Northern Ireland for barely a year. Spokesmen from both sides of the political and religious divide say that the hasty exit of the urbane and diplomatic Mr. Hurd, called to higher things as British home secretary, shows that Ulster is not a major priority of Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher.
Mrs. Thatcher's decision to move Hurd on the eve of crucial Anglo-Irish talks with the Dublin government has particularly annoyed John Hume, leader of the Social Democratic and Labour Party, which represents a large section of Ulster's half-million Roman Catholics. Mr. Hume said that the removal of Hurd underscored how unimportant Northern Ireland is when the interests of the Conservative Party are at stake.
Harold McCusker, a member of the Official Unionist Party, which represents the majority of Ulster's 1 million Protestants, was equally scathing: ``To switch people in and out of Northern Ireland at this speed clearly indicates that Northern Ireland is not at the top of Mrs. Thatcher's priorities.''
James Prior, Hurd's predecessor in Ulster, did not mince his words. He said ``it is a pity that Northern Ireland is always regarded as if it were a dustbin. I went there because Mrs. Thatcher was fed up with me at home.''
All of this hardly augurs well for the new Northern Ireland Secretary, Tom King, who arrived in Ulster amid reports that he had been reluctant to take the post.
But on his arrival in Belfast he talked of his new job as ``an exciting challenge.'' Mr. King is an able politician who has held a number of government posts, each for a short time, but he will find it difficult to convince Ulster's people that his latest move is a promotion.
The local misgivings about the switch in secretaries of state is not so much about a possible change of policy as the indication that Thatcher clearly believes that an incoming politician can learn relatively easily about the complexities of Ulster politics. Hurd, after barely a year in office was only beginning to come to grips with some of the deeper problems. He showed that the was prepared to face up to unionist hostility, as he did when the police re-routed several Protestant marches. This resulted
in prolonged riots.
Equally, Hurd made it clear to Irish Nationalists both in Northern Ireland and the Irish Republic that the Unionists' link with Britain would remain so long as a majority in Northern Ireland voted for it.
Hurd, though tactful, had an inner core of steel. King will need to show equal tactand toughness. Already the Unionists are worried that the Anglo-Irish talks will give Dublin some involvement in the internal affairs of Northern Ireland.