A vexing question: Why does Margaret Thatcher want to be a recruiter for the Provisional Irish Republican Army? Without caviling about her unwitting intentions, that is what she now is.

Following a meeting on the Northern Ireland question between herself and Garret FitzGerald, the Irish prime minister, Thatcher made remarks that were graceless and self-indulgent. She insulted both the Irish prime minister and his countrymen by dismissing as worthless the proposals and options for peace found in the report of the New Ireland Forum. That is the document produced earlier this year by leaders of several of Ireland's political parties, north and south.

The report, called "historic," was seen as the best effort by some of the best minds in Ireland to achieve peace in bloodied Ulster. To Thatcher, it might as well have been a burnt-out hunk of peat from a Londonderry bog. She kicked the Forum into a political ditch: "I have made it clear that a unified Ireland was one solution that is out. A second solution was a confederation of two states. That is out. A third solution was joint authority. That is out -- that is a derogation of sovereignty."

Out, out, out means down, down, down for any chances that moderation might work in a solution to Northern Ireland. In the attempt to show that she is tough, Thatcher has given the IRA an unprecedented opportunity to strengthen its ranks. The IRA has been arguing all along that it was a waste of time to attempt a dialogue with the British government: Only violence will work.

Nothing would have been worse for the IRA than a statement from Thatcher following the meeting with Garret FitzGerald that the British government was willing to gamble and begin serious discussions of the New Ireland Forum proposals. The gamble would have been small, but the signal large: The British government is ready to respond, compromise is possible. Instead, Thatcher, with stone-cold intransigence, took the hardest of possible lines. Which was no line.

The "out, out, out" tirade was a public humiliation for FitzGerald. Thatcher undercut him. He had been playing the role -- overdrawn from the start but a role nevertheless -- that the Forum report was all but inspired by St. Patrick and would fulfil the dreams of James Connolly and the other martyrs of the 1916 uprising. This ballyhooing was tolerated by many of the Irish who knew better but were willing to go one more extra mile. Last March, FitzGerald came to Washington to address a joint session of Congress.All he could offer as a specific solution to "the somber tragedy" of Northern Ireland was the advice that Americans not give moral or financial support to gunmen in Ulster.

That goes without saying, but FitzGerald said it anyway. Where he should have spoken out boldly -- as Charles Haughey, the prime minister before him, did -- was on the need for the timely withdrawal of the British from Ulster.

The IRA, which as recently as 20 years ago was as weak as a wilted clover, grew in strength during the 1970s because it persuaded people that the British government would not be moved by reason or compromise. The IRA said that only violence would do it. The recent killing and bombing at Brighton is an example of that insane theory in action.

What is the counter-argument to the IRA now? Spend a few more years on getting up Forum Report II so that its options and proposals, like the last ones, can be kicked aside by the haughty British government? There is little historical evidence that British leaders have ever understood the Irish character. Thatcher's remarks -- called "gratuitously offensive" by FitzGerald -- are part of the centuries-long pattern of British subjugation of Ireland. Its current stance in Ulster is that if the British withdraw, civil war will follow: The semi-savage Irish are not up to the burdens of self-government.

This is a myth. Next to its saints and scholars, what is Ireland best known for than its politicians? It is inconceivable if a united Ireland were to be free of the British and the artificial boundary it created in the 1920s that constitutional protections would not be guaranteed to the Protestant community of Ulster.

The religious question is small compared with the dominant reality in the North: unemployment, family breakdowns, poor housing, mental depression, hopelessness among the young. Solutions to those intractables were the true hope of the Forum Report. Thatcher leveled only a political insult to the Dublin government. To the impoverished 1.5 million citizens of Ulster, her message was worse: Keep suffering.