25 AUGUST 1979, Page 4

Mrs Thatcher's Irish duty

George Gale

Last week I wrote about the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, Mr Humphrey Atkins, being on holiday in Tunisia in August, Ulster's cruellest month, Although his absence will attract most criticism, his neglect of his duty is symptomatic of a very general political disorder which makes most English, Scottish and Welsh politicians turn their backs on the Irish mess. The Cabinet and the Prime Minister cannot avoid their share of blame, for they share in Mr Atkins's irresponsibility. They endorse, by their lack of a sufficient concern, a collective flippancy. They cannot be bothered with Ulster. None of them addresses his mind to the problem, They leave it to Mr Atkins, who goes on holiday. It is a classic example of how the doctrine of Cabinet responsibility allows Cabinet members to be personally irresponsible.

Do Cabinet ministers circulate their colleagues with papers on Northern Ireland? They do not. Does Sir Keith Joseph instruct his Centre for Policy Studies to direct its attention to the Irish problem? He does not. Does the Think Tank think about Ulster? It does not. The Defence Secretary is bothered occasionally, because NATO nags him for taking troops away from BA OR for police duties in Northern Ireland: Northern Ireland is a nuisance, The Home Secretary, having handed over his responsibilities for law and order in the province, fidgets from time to time about the threat of violence in Glasgow, Liverpool and parts of London should the Irish 'troubles' spill over onto the mainland, and keeps the Special Branch, which owes its origin to earlier Irish trouble, alert: Northern Ireland is an irritant. The Chancellor of the ..Exchequer, the other finance ministers, the Secretaries for Industry and for Trade, view Ulster's huge drain on the United Kingdom's resources with mild dismay, but do not suppose that they can do anything about it: Northern Ireland is an expensive burden. The Foreign Office, which acts as if Northern Ireland were a peculiarly difficult and intransigent colony which ought to know better, keeps a man in Belfast, a political officer: Northern Ireland is foreign territory. Even the Chief Whip, who used to enjoy counting the votes of the loyal Ulster Unionists as part of the Tory parliamentary party and who therefore paid them and their constituency a considerable degree of respect, now places no reliance upon their support: Northern Ireland is of little party-political relevance.

In short, individual Cabinet ministers, when they think of Northern Ireland at all, think of it as a great bore. Mr Heath, when Prime Minister, made a considerable effort to interest himself in the problem and showed great concern for a while; but once he had made up his mind that there was nothing for it but to introduce Direct Rule, he did so, and left the mess to the Northern Ireland Secretary to get on with as best he could. He washed his hands of it; and his successors at Number Ten have taken good care not to get their hands dirty.

Prime Ministers have been able to do this because it has been agreed between the parties not to treat the Irish mess as a party political issue. Both Labour and Conservative parties have, naturally enough, been frightened of what might happen should Northern Ireland become a matter of partisan dispute, and it has suited them to preserve a bipartisan approach. But it is unlikely to suit the Labour party indefinitely to support what is essentially a conservative and unionist posture. The popular call, 'Bring home the troops', will sound increasingly attractive to a party unlikely to agree on how it should attack the Government's economic and industrial policies, on how it should be organised for the next five or ten years, and on what it should be saying to the country. The Labour party will be eager to unite on an issue about which it can get passionate and be popular: it might very well succumb to the Irish temptation.

A Tory prime minister would be well advised to consider this possik■ility. But party political considerations are not the only ones which should now concentrate Mrs Thatcher's attention upon Ulster, Her sense of duty, it seems to me, cannot but impel her in the same direction. In her first months of office she has concentrated upon the economic and industrial situation. Her efforts here have been to urge her colleagues not to weaken or be diverted in their task of pulling government off the backs of industry, in their reliance upon monetarist discipline, in their acceptance that a long slog lies ahead during which matters will get rougher before they get smoother. She has made her mark in the EEC, and her notable absence of enthusiasm for the Common Market has shown that she is unlikely to allow the Labour party to become the sole beneficiary of popular hostility to the Treaty of Rome and its consequences. She will not allow herself to be outflanked on Europe.

On Rhodesia, whether or not she gets an acceptable solution, she has outmanoeuvred her own Rhodesian die-hards and, helped by Lord Carrington, she has made something of a diplomatic triumph out of what started off as a most undignified U-turn. And so, with Rhodesia, from her point of view, out of the way, with the EEC warned that it is on probation, and with the economic ministers left in no doubt what is expected of them, Mrs Thatcher is now politically able to pay attention to Ulster. It is her duty to do no less, and political advantage and personal inclination could combine: for she has no wish for a continuing Irish mess to be the same blot on her administration as it was on the administrations of Wilson, Heath and Callaghan. She enjoys the head-on tackling of problems, and her experiences at Lusaka will have whetted her appetite. She now holidays in the Western Isles (and none will begrudge her the break) and it would be surprising if her thoughts there did not turn across the water to Ireland. It will be even more surprising if, in her own time (which could, I think, be soon) she does not actively interest herself in this most intractable problem of British government and thereupon grapple with it.

It was remarked more than once, during her Lusaka trip, that she was emulating Charles de Gaulle who, coming back to power on an Algerie Frangaise ticket, no sooner re-entered the Elysee than he betrayed the colons, pulled out the army and negotiated Algerian independence. Some people thought that she was doing something of the kind with Rhodesia, winning an election with a promise to call off sanctions and recognise the Muzorewa regime conditional only upon a certificate of electoral good conduct from Lord Boyd then, with the certificate in her hand, deciding instead to ditch the white Rhodesians in exchange for the plaudits of the Commonwealth.

Now in no way at all does Mrs Thatcher resemble de Gaulle. Poujade is the Frenchman with whom the ungallant English may be more likely to compare her. But she has a fierce patriotism as well as a clear recognition of the nation's interests. Northern Ireland is 'in some respects Britain's Algeria. It was originally colonised by Scottish Presbyterians to suit English interests and the Irish mess is the sour fruit of that colonisation. The present connection between Britain and Northern Ireland is also expensive and debilitating. It would suit the British national interest if the connection could be broken without the letting of blood. The United Kingdom is not wellserved by the Ulster 'loyalists', and the 'integrity' of the kingdom is of scant value if one part of the whole is as politically diseased and as unruly as Northern Ireland. Whether Northern Ireland benefits from the connection, except through subsidies which in any event would be continued, is very doubtful, since if suffers from appalling and endemic violence. As for the British metropolitan mainland, no benefits accrue.

Mrs Thatcher starts off with a pretty clean slate, on which nothing much is written, if and when she comes to accept her duty and treats Northern IreJand with the seriousness it deserves but does not usually receive. She should not necessarily do to Northern Ireland what de Gaulle did to Algeria. But what she could and should do is look at the problem and decide where the true, as opposed to the sentimental, national interest lies. That is her Irish duty.