FROM A SPECIAL CORRESPONDENT IN BELFAST NORTHERN IRELAND this week took -at least a temporary step back from the brink of outright civil war. What Secretary of State, Mr. William Whitelaw, told or assured the two masked and hooded leaders of the Protestant para-military Ulster Defence Association he met on Tuesday afternoon is not being revealed.
But it does mean there will be no permanent Protestant no-go areas for at least a fortnight.
And it also means that the danger of a repetition of last weekend's bitter sectarian clashes in Belfast — in which three civilians and a soldier died— has to some extent receeded.
. Mr. Whitelaw still has the problem of the Catholic no-go areas in Derry (and this is what the present UDA militancy is all about) and sources close to him suggest that he may put pressure on the Catholics of the Creggan and Bogside areas by imposing some form of economic sanctions.
This could include the cutting off of electricity supplies and the remnants of community services.
Whatever he has in mind has obviously pleased the UDA deoutations who are determined to see the rule of law operating once again in all parts of Northern Ireland.
While Northern Ireland breathed a thankful sigh of relief at the calling off of the UDA 'no-go' operations there Was intense anger among the Catholic minority about Mr. Whitelaw's point blank refusal to meet leaders of the provisional IRA for talks.
Many See it as a churlish and rash attempt by Mr. Whitelaw to placate the growing anger of the Protestant majority — and as a lost opportunity of bringing to an end the daily shootings and bombings.
VIOLENCE Mr. Whitelaw says he will not talk to murderers but many Catholic leaders ask what is the difference between this and talking with masked and hooded men of the UDA who are potential murderers and bombers.
They also argue that Mr. Whitelaw's refusal to agree to a seven day truce gives the Provisional IRA no option but to continue with their campaign of violence.
Privately the IRA move is being seen by some Catholic leaders. including Mr. Paddy Devlin, the Social and Democratic Labour Party chief wh:p, as a genuine gesture towards peace and not as a political gimmick or a last ditch face-saving effort by the Provisionals to end their campaign with prestige and honour.
Mr. Whitelaw, it is being argued, is now demanding an unconditional surrender from the Catholic minority. In the coming weeks he is almost assured of a succession of bitter attacks from anti-Unionist leaders for wantonly disregarding an olive branch.
INTERNMENT A source close to the Provisional republican movement said: "How the hell can you talk to a man when he just won't talk to you."
He added: "Mr. Whitelaw or someone in the British Government will have to talk to us eventually. Why not sooner than later. They had to do it in the 1920s and the same applies in 1972."
It is also felt in opposition circles that if Mr Whitelaw had been politically courageous enough to meet the IRA it could have let the Social Democratic and Labour Party off the hook on the thorny question of internment.