THE departure from Northern Ireland of Tom King, the long-serving secretary of state, and his replacement by Peter Brooke, the steady but unspectacular former chairman of the British Conservative Party, points to a policy of no-change in this most troublesome part of the United Kingdom. In her controversial Cabinet reshuffle, Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher created headlines by replacing the well-established Sir Geoffrey Howe as Foreign Secretary by the relatively unknown John Major. In the process, she also offended her Home Secretary, Douglas Hurd, by appearing to offer his job, behind his back, to Sir Geoffrey who resolutely declined the offer and opted for the post of deputy prime minister.
Against such a background of high political intrigue in London, the changes in Northern Ireland attracted little national attention. But successive British governments have found to their cost that events in Ulster can take on national significance in the most horrific way, and that this most difficult problem of all requires firm handling and careful attention.
Mrs. Thatcher has given a clear signal that she is not about to embark on a new policy initiative in Northern Ireland. On the contrary, she has appointed a man who can be relied upon to play a straight bat - the English cricketing term for someone who will not take any chances. Mr. Brooke, a noted cricket supporter, is just such a man. He has worked successfully as a Conservative chairman to prepare the party machine for the next British general election, although he was held partly responsible by the rank and file for the party's poor showing in the European elections in May. His dubious reward was to be given one of the most complex set of problems facing any member of the British Cabinet. Northern Ireland is not a political portfolio for the fainthearted.
Mr. Brooke succeeds a man who, in fact, has enhanced his career by his four years in Northern Ireland. Mr. King, the longest-serving of any secretary of state since direct rule was imposed by the British in 1972, has now been promoted to the major Cabinet post of secretary of state for defense. This is widely regarded as a deserved recognition for King who made the best of a difficult set of circumstances which he inherited on his arrival in Northern Ireland. He was hastily summoned to replace the then outgoing secretary, ironically Mr. Douglas Hurd, who was on his way to another major post as Home Secretary. But hardly before King had time to settle, he was blown into the huge storm arising from the Anglo-Irish Agreement.
This is a complex document which has overshadowed every aspect of Northern Ireland's politics in the past four years. It was signed in November 1985, when the British and Irish governments undertook jointly to work together more closely for peace in Ireland. But the terms of the agreement proved controversial. The Irish government, based in Dublin, agreed for the first time to recognize the legitimacy of Northern Ireland. In return, the British government allowed the Irish a limited advisory role in the day-to-day running of Northern Ireland's affairs. This was regarded by the Unionists, the political representatives of the province's 1 million Protestants who favor retaining the link with Britain, as a first step toward a forced Irish unity.
As a result they staged massive political protests in an attempt to pressure the British to change their minds. In one of these early demonstrations, King was badly jostled outside Belfast's City Hall, but he held firm, physically and politically. In fact, the British adopted the old Unionist slogans of ``No surrender'' and ``Not an inch.'' In carrying out this policy, King failed to win any friends in the hardline Unionist camp, but he won the respect of the province's half-million Roman Catholics, many of whom would favor Irish unity by peaceful means. (This last point is often disputed, and some commentators claim that most Catholics would vote to remain British because the link with Britain guarantees them much higher living standards than an All-Ireland Republic.)
In general, however, King won the regard of many as a man who refused to be pushed around by any political party and who was trying his best to help all the people of Northern Ireland. He also won the respect of politicians in the Irish Republic for standing firm behind the Anglo-Irish Agreement, and some of their tributes on his departure were fulsome. Irish politicians as a rule tend not to heap praise on their English counterparts.
King, for his part, grew to like Northern Ireland and its people. He came to admire their resourcefulness and their cheerfulness in adversity, and although the position of defense secretary was an offer he could not refuse, he left the province with genuine sadness. In his farewell message he expressed real hope for a political agreement.
It can be said fairly that he left the province a slightly better place than when he arrived. The heated passions surrounding the Anglo-Irish Agreement have died a little, to be replaced by a cold surliness on the part of the many Unionists who still refuse to have anything to do with it. However, there have been some hopeful signs that the parties might talk if a British secretary of state and his advisers could demonstrate the political genius required to please everyone at the same time.
BROOKE inherits a slightly better situation than his predecessor, but the difficulties ought not to be minimized. The political deadlock remains, the sporadic violence continues, and unemployment, despite one or two cheering examples of inward investment in the recent past, remains distressingly high. It is clear Thatcher is requiring of her new man in Belfast a steady nerve and an ability to keep the situation under control. Political miracles are not on the agenda. To return to a cricketing metaphor, Thatcher requires someone with a safe pair of hands, a secretary of state who will not let the side down. Brooke, if nothing else, is reputed to have safe enough hands for Ulster and its predictable hot potatoes.