Next Wednesday Northern Ireland goes to the polls. Here Mgr Michael J Buckley analyses the background to the election.
THE ULTIMATE solution to Northern Ireland's problems must come from the people themselves and not imposed from without. But will next week's election provide a step in the right direction?
Every Northern Ireland Secretary gets one bite at the cherry. Jim Prior, afcer numerous consultations with all the political parties, has come up with the idea of an Assembly which will give politicans quite substantial control over the government of Northern Ireland.
In fairness to him he has bent over backwards to work out a compromise between the diametrically opposed factions. The political leaders have been united in one thing: their negative response to his proposals.
The Assembly is, therefore, a non-starter even before the people go to the polls.
The political parties are going to the electorate not to beat the opponents of the opposite camp but of their own. The Official Unionists are engaged in a bitter power struggle with the Democratic Unionists to decide who represents the Protestant majority. The Social Democratic Labour Party, are fighting off the challenge of Provisional Sinn Fein in order to prove that they are the official voice of the Catholic minority.
No one really cares who wins the seats because the result is predictable anyway. Protestant and Catholic seats will remain as they were in a no-change situation. The important element in the polls for the politicans concerned is for the Official Unionists to beat the Democratic Unionists, and for the SDLP to prove that they, and not the Provisional Sinn Fein, are the true champions of nationalism.
It is like an elimination contest before the final bout between the two surviving heavyweights. The hard-liners will win. It is a crazy situation in a crazy election.
Take the SDLP. In the early years of their existence they had a fairly generous sprinkling of Protestants in their ranks.
This is no longer the case; they are now completely Catholic and avowedly nationalistic and have wandered far from the leadership of Gerry Fitt who today is in the political wilderness. John Hume, who superseded him as leader, is not a hard-line nationalist but is beginning to talk that language as he tries desperately to hold his party together at some cost to his own more moderate views.
His Deputy Leader, Seamus Mallon, is comfortably enthroned as a Senator in Dublin, something which would have been unheard of three years ago.
Why the drastic change in policy? The simple answer is the hunger strike of last year. The ghost of Bobby Sands, and those who died in H Block, in a sense destroyed the broad base of the SDLP. They have forced Hume's party into a political struggle for survival, and their platform has narrowed to a nationalist plank. When the chips are down they differ from the Sinn Fein only in the methods and process by which union with Dublin is achieved.
Like the Republicans of old, the SDLP has decided to contest the forthcoming elections but to abstain from taking any part in the Assembly.
They see the spectre of Stormont on the horizon. They claim that the Assembly will achieve nothing to further the cause of the people they represent to prove a solution for the real problem of Northern Ireland. The Assembly will certainly achieve nothing if they are not there.
The Provisional Sinn Fein are consistent in their attitude. They are fundamentally dedicated to a rejection of Prior's devolution plan. They do not trust the SDLP to stay out of the new Assembly after the election because of its previous participation in the Sunningdale affair!
They see Hume and his followers as aspirers after political power rather than dedicated disciples of nationalism. They see themselves as the pure-blooded Fenians.
The outcome of the struggle between them depends in part on how fresh in people's minds are the traumatic events of the hunger strike.
The struggle between the Unionists is even fiercer. On the one hand there are the official Unionists who traditionally expect the Protestant vote but lack leadership: on the other the Democratic Unionists under the leadership of Ian Paisley.
He speaks to the souls of Protestants by conjuring up fears of Papish horrot plots. He is to his party what Ian Botham is to English cricket.
Both parties go into the election with an absolute commitment that the Assembly must fail. If either side wins decisively then it will push the Assembly as an essential prerequisite for the province's future security and stability.
Neither party trusts the other. They vie with each other in proclaiming that their nonUnionist opponents will never be given a share in Government.
The polarisation of the Unionists of whatever hue is complete. "No surrender" is the watchword, and Ian Paisley's political shrewdness and invective will probably win the day.
There are alternative political parties such as the Alliance and Workers' Party, and the other middle-ground groupings. Their prospects can be summed up in two words: No chance — all this at a time when unemployment is running at over 20 per cent.
Jim Prior has given Northern Ireland an opportunity to sort itself out politically on October 20. The farce will be played out in every city, town and village of Northern Ireland.
The people who are the ultimate yictims will be no nearer each other. There will be no power-sharing, only an intensification of pain-sharing. The day of reckoning is ominously one step closer.