By a Special Correspondent
HE moment has been reached in Northern Irish affairs when the maximum of good will and good sense is desperately hoped for and confidently expected by all sane men.
Nothing less than 100 per cent support for the efforts of Mr. William Whitelaw and his colleagues can enable this moment to become a decisive turning point. All of which prompts reflection on the strangeness of some of the unravellings of fortune during the past three breath-holding months.
The Unionist party in Northern Ireland, for example, is disguising its obvious vulnerability under a thin veil of supposed unity. Outright consternation and confusion goes under the label of loyalty; anger about the recent past and fear of the future is called determination.
But if a poll were held and an honest answer given to the question "Are you satisfied with the present leadership?" the cracks in party unity might become glaringly apparent.
The loyalty of the traditional Unionist party member is being powerfully fought over by the vastly differing brands of Unionism. On the one hand there is William Craig and the militant Vanguard movement (favouring UDI if all else fails).
On the other there is Brian Faulkner, party leader, stolidly walking down a road towards the restorktion of the suspended Stormont Parliament.
And in the middle, the moderates are now left wondering where the Unionist leadership and policies are leading them. Disenchantment among the Unionists with the leadership, in fact is becoming more and more obvious.
The debonair Mr. Faulkner never trusted by the Catholic minority and Opposition M.P.s, took over as Prime Minister with the reputation of being the only "truly professional politician" in the Unionist Parliamentary ranks: a man who had made it to the top by sheer expertise, hard work and efficiency; a man with a sizeable grass root support; the leader who would put the "rebels" in their place and stand up to the demands of the Heath Government.
But since direct rule three months ago that image, even in Unionist eyes, has taken a severe knock. His performance in a shadow-type role shows less of the professionalism and political astuteness credited to him.
Verbal sniping at the William Whitelaw administration, coupled with dire warnings about what Unionists will and will not tolerate, began to creep into his public statements. Many Unionists became uneasy and anxious.
Phelim O'Neill, a former Stormont Cabinet Minister and cousin of the former Prime Minister Captain Terence (Lord) O'Neill, defected to the middle-of-the-road Alliance party which em braces Catholics and Protestants as members.
Mr. Faulkner did not keep public silence in his attack. And usually he picked the sensitive problem of security as the target. Robin Dailie, his shadow Minister of Commerce. resigned saying he would be of more use to Northern Ireland outside party politics.
To many people, Mr. Faulkner was showing distinct Right-wing tendencies. There was, for example, the emotional handshake with Bill Craig on the balcony of Parliament Buildings, Stormont, as 100,000 vocal and angry Protestants thundered their rejection of direct rule.
(This marriage of interests ended in quick divorce, but the decree was never made absolute. Mr. Faulkner immediately warned Loyalists (i.e. Unionists) against UDI fantasies.) But it was becoming increasingly clear, as speech followed speech, that Mr. Faulkner was being decidely unhelpful to Mr. Whitelaw's attempt to steer Northern Ireland away from a civil war.
After appearing on a "loyalist" platform in Co. Down with Bill (ises. Mr, Enoch Powell and other Rightwingers, Sir Robert Porter, a former Minister of Home Affairs and one of the most respected moderates in the Unionist party, cut himself adrift.
(It was at meeting that Mr. Powell openly attacked the Heath Government and gave his versions of Mr. Whitelaw's terms of reference in Northern Ireland.' "Tidy it up quietly," Heath told Whitelaw.) Opposition M.P.s have been not merely suggesting but saying openly that Mr. Faulkner does not want Mr. Whitelaw to succeed. For his success would spell and end to Mr. Faulkner's hopes for a restored Stormont Parliament as well as personal and Unionist power in the old sense.
On this assumption last
Thursday's ceasefire announcement by the Provisional IRA was the worst possible news Mr. Faulkner could have heard. On the BBC television "24 Hours" programme the same night he put on a remarkably bad-tempered and petulant performance.
He banged the table and had to be reminded (at news of fresh shooting in Belfast) that the ceasefire did not come into effect until midnight on June 26.
Mr. Faulkner's mask of "moderation" had at last dropped away before millions of viewers. In the words of Mr. John Fiume (the S.D.L.P. member who was on the same programme) he was "like a small boy who has had his lollipop taken away from him."
What is the future of the Unionist party? The portents are not good. A hiving off to the Vanguard movement of those who prefer the direct. even if violent, approach of Bill Craig and the para-military Ulster Defence Association is on the cards. So is the defection of many more moderate Unionist members to the Alliance party.
When the conference table is reached on a political solution to Northern Ireland's problems, Mr. Faulkner may well find himself leading a muchdwarfed Unionist party and having an equally diminished say in the outcome of the talks.