ULSTER'S CATCH-22

NORTHERN IRELAND. The very words conjure images of violence.

But the despair in the six counties these days is as much economic as political or social. Unemployment in Northern Ireland is a staggering 19.2 percent, compared with 11.3 percent for Great Britain as a whole. In some neighborhoods in Belfast the unemployment figure for youths is close to 80 percent - making for a bountiful recruiting ground for the IRA and Protestant extremists looking to swell their ranks.Against this depressing backdrop, Peter Viggers, U.K. undersecretary of state for Northern Ireland, journeyed to the United States last week to drum up investment support among U.S. corporations. Mr. Viggers downplayed the ''troubles" by stressing that, on average, Northern Ireland is 50 percent safer than the United States.

He spoke eloquently of the variety of grants available for new plant start-ups - including a 50 percent grant for research and development. But grants are not enough. Even with the government support, new firms arriving in Northern Ireland have a life expectancy of only five to 10 years.

The trouble facing Northern Ireland, is common to most of Europe. Traditional industries - in Northern Ireland's case shipbuilding, coal and textiles - have seen better days. Efforts to promote high-tech fields like aerospace, computers and telecommunications have been stifled by traditional rigidities of labor and management.

The citizens of Northern Ireland have not proven themselves to be an entrepreneurial lot. More must be done in schools and workshops to promote and develop these skills. But there's a Catch-22 here; with such a severe shortage of jobs, many young and able Irishmen don't get the sort of on-the-job training they need to launch their own enterprises.

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