The hunger strikes by Irish nationalist prisoners in British-ruled Northern Ireland have brought this violence-plagued province to a new divide.

While the strikes are pushing London toward another attempt at a political settlement of the seemingly irreconcilable national and religious divisions, they are at the same time worsening the polarization that Britons increasingly hope to be rid of.

After dealing with Northern Ireland for a number of years as primarily a security problem, the British government finds itself under growing domestic and international pressure to take a new approach. British politicians and influential media voices, backed by a majority of Britons in opinion polls, are asking whether the time has come to relinquish some or all sovereignty over the six counties of Ulster.

"There is a fairly widespread feeling in Britain that reacts against the images of firebombs, deaths and all the rest," said a senior British official responsible for the province, "and that wants action on Northern Ireland, a political solution that goes beyond the issue of the prisons."

In what is becoming a major national debate in Britain on the future of Northern Ireland, a number of alternatives to the past decade of direct British rule have been suggested in recent months. They range from eventually cutting Northern Ireland loose as an independent country to uniting it with the neighboring Republic of Ireland in some kind of confederation.

Meanwhile, pressure is growing on the British government to give Northern Ireland at least a limited form of home rule in which the two-thirds Protestant majority, which wants to remain part of Britain, would be forced to share political power with the one-third Catholic minority, which wants Ulster united with Ireland.

Yet, in an ironic twist, the hunger strike by convicted Irish nationalist terrorists has worsened the historic polarization between Protestant British loyalists and Catholic Irish nationalists, making it even more difficult to devise, negotiate or implement a political solution.

"Circumstances are so prejudiced," said Harold McCusker, an Ulster Protestant member of the British Parliament, that even suggesting that his constituents listen to proposals for change "is to have me howled down as a traitor."

"We've been here longer than the whites in America," said George Chittick, a 38-year-old government employe living in a staunchly Protestant loyalist working-class neighborhood along the divide between Catholic and Protestant ghettos in West Belfast. "If you give America back to the Indians, we'll get out of Ireland."

"No, peace is not possible here unless people accept the status quo," added Chittick, emphasizing that "very stubborn" Protestants like him would strongly resist any change, including sharing political power with Catholics, that threatens to undo Northern Ireland's ties with Britain.

"The divisions have always meant we have had one-party rule," said Michael Torrens-Spence, a retired British naval officer, "since if the opposition won, it would abolish the state. The whole issue is that there are two nations in Ireland."

"I can't see any break in the clouds," said retired bus conductor Joe Reynolds, who lives on the other side of the sectarian divide from Chittick in the militantly Irish nationalist Catholic housing project of Ballymurphy. "There is a Protestant veto on any British act. Nothing has been achieved in the past 12 years. British rule has not resolved the situation. They are still afraid of the Protestants."

"People have become more polarized," Reynolds added, because of the hunger strike and accompanying clashes between British security forces and young Irish nationalists in Catholic ghettos. The impact of the hunger strike, in which 10 convicted Irish nationalist terrorists have starved themselves to death in the Maze Prison outside Belfast, has gone far beyond the prisoners' demands for changes in the conditions of their confinement.

Although it does not appear to have significantly increased support for the outlawed Provisional Irish Republican Army's paramilitary campaign to force a British withdrawal, the hunger strike has stirred strong sympathy for the prisoners and their families among Irish Catholics in Northern Ireland, the Irish Republic to the south and in the United States. It has greatly intensified anti-British feeling among those who blame Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher's government at least as much as the Provisional IRA for causing more deaths by not agreeing on a compromise that would alter prison conditions without giving terrorists control of the prison or the status of political rather than criminal prisoners.

The protest fasts have further disrupted life in Catholic areas of the province, where residents complain that the pervasive presence of the British Army contributes to the almost daily violence in the streets. It has harmed previously improving British relations with Ireland, whose government blames both Britain and the "Provos" for prolonging a crisis in which some of the violence and political instability in the north has begun to spill over the border.

The sympathetic reaction to the hunger strike among many Irish Catholics on both sides of the border and in the United States has confirmed for many Ulster Protestants that support for the Provos' tactics is more widespread among Irish nationalists than advocates of peaceful unification of Ireland will admit. This has made it more difficult for either Protestant or Catholic politicians to suggest a moderate course for settling the conflict.

Worldwide attention dropped off somewhat after the death of the first hunger striker, Bobby Sands, who had been elected to the British Parliament. The more recent death of Kieran Doherty, who had been elected to the Irish Parliament, had less apparent impact than expected, even in the republic. The overall level of violence here also has been somewhat lower than feared.

Yet the upsurge of violence has been significant. More than 50 civilians, police officers and soldiers have been killed since the beginning of the hunger strike in March, double the number killed during the same period last year.

There also have been more than 1,000 injuries. Rioters have attacked police and Army patrols and bases with countless thousands of molotov cocktails and homemade grenades, as well as stones and bricks. The security forces have responded with about 7,000 rounds of plastic bullets, which have injured more than 100 people and killed seven, including three children, since March. In recent days, there also have been scattered shootings of Catholics blamed on Protestants, which could lead to a resumption of tit-for-tat killings.

"People are getting angrier and angrier," said Joe Hendron, a respected physician who works in the Catholic ghetto of West Belfast. "Even those who are not sympathetic to the hunger strike or the IRA blame the British for helping drive young people into conflict with the security forces. That causes chaos for the whole community."

"I'm not IRA, but at the same time I have no love for the British Army," agreed Reynolds, a graying, 60-year-old retiree in Ballymurphy, where some of the most frequent and violent conflict occurs. "The British Army is behaving very badly," he said, "harassing people by stopping them on the streets in such an aggressive manner," making obscene and bigoted remarks when riding by in armored vehicles and patrolling Catholic neighborhoods in the middle of the night "as a form of intimidation."

What is the British Army doing here? Why does Britain still rule part of Ireland? Why isn't the island unified under Irish rule?

These questions are rooted in hundreds of years of history that overshadow the present in Northern Ireland. The problem of answering them lies in the strongly conflicting perceptions of Protestants and Catholics, and the British, who are blamed by both sides for being part of the problem but who see themselves as its muddled victims.

For Catholic Irish nationalists, British rule of Northern Ireland is the last vestige of English colonial conquest and misrule of the entire island. As a minority in Northern Ireland, the 500,000 Catholics fear being doomed forever to the discrimination and political impotence suffered by all Irish Catholics until what later became the Republic of Ireland broke away from Britain in the early 1920s. They see all of Ireland as their country and the loyalist majority as usurpers whose most popular leaders have always made clear their determination to keep the Catholics down, by violence if necessary. They blame the British for doing too little to protect them and to lift them out of second-class political and economic status.

For the Protestant loyalists, British rule is protection against being absorbed into the Republic of Ireland and becoming themselves a minority subject to discrimination in a theocracy whose constitution and social structure enforce Roman Catholic Church restrictions on divorce, birth control, abortion, intermarriage and education.

The Protestants have seen themselves as the vulnerable minority in the whole of Ireland ever since their ancestors came here from Scotland and England in the 16th and 17th centuries. Like white settlers among the Indians on the American frontier, with whom they sometimes compare themselves, the Protestant planters have resorted to force and discrimination when necessary to preserve their privileged position among a much larger number of Irish Catholics. At the same time, the Protestants insist that, as residents of Ireland for generations going back centuries, the 1 million of them now in Ulster are as Irish as anyone and should not be questioned about being there.

For the British, continued rule here has been justified as a legal and moral obligation since the rest of Ireland became an independent republic. British officials fear a bloodbath here if Britain withdrew or set a date for withdrawal without the majority and minority communities first agreeing on what would happen next. It is not a colonial problem, in the British view, but a conflict between Protestant loyalists and Catholic Irish nationalists that made creation of Northern Ireland necessary and makes it so difficult to change its status today. Despite their protestations, the British originally created the problem centuries ago through conquest and colonization of Ireland. But today, no longer an imperial power, they find themselves reduced to a largely reactive role for which they seem to have less and less enthusiasm.

As Ulster Protestants like to point out, Ireland has never been united except under British rule. The island was divided into fiefdoms by warring Gaelic tribal chieftans for centuries, long after much of its scattered population was converted to Christianity. After an influx of Englishmen settling in Ireland was largely absorbed, large armies were sent to subdue the Irish chieftains and unite Ireland under the British crown. The most stubborn resistance to the Elizabethan armies was in the six northeastern counties of Ulster, where soldiers and colonists from England and nearby Scotland were then encouraged by the government to settle.

Because Henry VIII had broken with Roman Catholicism, the newcomers were now Protestants, and religion figured in their often bloody conflicts with the native Irish. In 1641, Oliver Cromwell brutally massacred Irish Catholics to pacify the colony and protect his revolution in England.

More important, Cromwell dispossessed the Irish of much of their land, handing it over to soldiers and creditors.

Today's Protestant Ulstermen recite with pride their long history and the role that colonists from Ulster played in the American revolution and the fledgling United States. Their most important milestone in Ulster was the defeat of Catholic King James II by Protestant William of Orange at the Battle of the Boyne in 1690 after James II had tried to use Ireland as a base to regain his throne from William and Mary in England and restore Catholicism. It is today the most important anniversary in Ulster, celebrated by colorful marches -- intimidating to Catholics -- by the Protestants' Orange Orders.

"You learn from your father's knee, way back to the time of the plantation," said Chittick, who spends a lot of time at his neighborhood Orange Lodge and proudly marches with his bowler hat and umbrella at the head of its contingent in Orange Order parades. "This was never a united country except under Britain."

Chittick's family came to Northern Ireland in 1620. As his own young son listened intently, Chittick, a barrel-chested man with black hair and moustache and an impish smile, recited the Protestant loyalist version of Irish history since then, largely an account of putting down Catholic insurrections "every 60 to 80 years," dying for Britain in foreign wars, playing an important role in the British Industrial Revolution and contributing frontiersmen, revolutionary patriots and presidents to the fledgling United States. "The American people owe a lot to Ulster Protestants. Davy Crockett, Jim Bowie and 59 percent of all the Irish in America are Scots Presbyterians like us," Chittick claimed. "Why do Irish Catholics get all the attention?"

He compared the Orange Orders in Ulster to white groups in the American South. "The Orange lodges were set up for the defense of Protestants and the welfare of our churches," Chittick said. "Like the Bible Belt in your Deep South, we have organizations that can control our community's politics. If you tried to unite Ulster with Ireland, you would have a million people here who would not allow it."

The Protestant planters, though always a minority in the whole of Ireland, not only held a disproportionate share of the land but denied Catholics many rights and excluded them from government and the military. Catholics initially favored the Act of Union of 1800 that bound Ireland most closely with the rest of Britain and abolished the Irish Parliament because they thought the British would emancipate them and reduce the Protestants' power. However, Catholics remained victims of economic discrimination even after later winning full citizenship rights. Their alienation from their British rulers was greatly intensified by the mid-19th century potato famine, in which a million poor Catholic Irish people died and hundreds of thousands were forced to emigrate to the United States.

The Irish Catholic majority, with some Protestant supporters, eventually gained home rule for Ireland after persistent political agitation and years of bloody battles with the British following the 1916 Easter Rising insurrection in Dublin. But armed resistance by Protestants concentrated in the northeastern corner of Ireland forced the British to recognize a provisional Protestant loyalist provincial government in the six counties of Ulster when the other 26 counties of the island became the Irish Free State in 1922.

This partition, intended by British politicians to be temporary, hardened during World War II, when Ireland remained neutral but Northern Ireland became an important base for allied troops and ships. When the Republic of Ireland was proclaimed after the war, Ulster politicians won from the British Parliament the guarantee that Northern Ireland would keep its constitutional relationship with Britain so long as it had a majority wishing to remain British.

"Essentially, Northern Ireland was created to accommodate the objections of the basically Protestant population to the independence of Ireland and it had to have a Protestant majority," said John Hume, leader of the Catholic Social Democratic and Labor Party, which advocates gradual, peaceful unification of Ulster and Ireland. "Sectarianism was built into the very foundations of the state, with the minority constantly treated as an enemy of the state and therefore discriminated against, leading to reaction and counterreaction, which had led us into the situation we are trapped in today."

Catholics were shut out of the Northern Ireland government and most patronage jobs. Whole industries, including the government-owned Harland and Wolff shipyard that dominated employment in Belfast before falling on hard times, were Protestant preserves. Education was rigidly segregated.

While acknowledging that Catholics were kept out of political power to prevent them from achieving unification with Ireland, Ulster Protestants deny that discrimination was as pervasive as critics contend.

"I don't accept that Catholics were mistreated," said Torrens-Spence, who now lives in his native Ulster countryside near the Irish border, where he and other Protestant landowners are under threat of assassination by terrorists. Referring to years of Protestant rule in Ulster before 1969, he argued that Catholics "had a higher proportion of state-subsidized housing than Protestants" and that much Catholic poverty is attributable to an imprudently high birth rate. "Many Catholics live on welfare," he said.

Out of a Catholic civil rights movement in the late 1960s grew violent conflict between Catholics and Protestants that forced the British to intervene with troops in 1969. The Protestant-dominated Ulster Parliament later was disbanded, the local police and militia reorganized and put under British control, and the province ruled directly from London, as it is today.

British troops were originally welcomed by Catholics as protection from the Ulster security forces and Protestant paramilitary groups. But this bond was broken in conflict between the British troops and the Provisional IRA. A more militant offshoot of the Irish paramilitary forces that helped win the Republic of Ireland's independence, the Provisional IRA tried to make itself the Catholics' protector and argued that violent insurrection against both the British and Protestants was the only path to Irish unification. Irish Catholics in Northern Ireland have never appeared to give majority support to the Provisionals. But they were alienated from the Protestants by retaliatory Protestant paramilitary terrorism and from the British by a policy of internment without trial of suspected IRA terrorists and supporters between 1971 and 1975 and the killing of 13 Catholic demonstrators in Londonderry in 1972 by British paratroopers.

Violent conflict has continued, at least sporadically, since, although far fewer people have been killed in recent years than at the peak of violence from 1971 through 1976. The Provisional IRA's strength has diminished, but it recently has been more successful in assassinations and in mounting multiple bombing attacks. Protestant paramilitary groups and gangs, who killed just as indiscriminately as the Provisional IRA during the 1970s, are largely inactive, although still organized and feared by Catholics and the British.

Negotiations involving Britain, Ireland and Protestant and Catholic politicians in Northern Ireland produced agreement in 1973 for a provincial government in which Protestants and Catholics shared power for the first time. But Protestant loyalists opposed to power-sharing brought the provincial government down with a workers' strike.

"I just cannot understand how Britain allows the Protestants to dictate to them," complained Ballymurphy resident Reynolds, "like allowing them to break power-sharing in 1974."

But Chittick insisted that it is the Protestants who are vulnerable. His small home is surrounded by the shells of buildings destroyed by bombs and fires during the sectarian fighting of the last 12 years. "I don't deny the Roman Catholic his right to worship any way he likes," Chittick said, "but I will deny him the encroachment of his church on things like divorce or pulling down the state."

As seen by moderate Irish nationalists like John Hume, however, the problem is that "the state of Northern Ireland was artificially drawn to ensure that what was then a minority in all of Ireland became a majority" and that this "made a nonsense of the rule of law." So, Hume told Harold McCusker, a moderate loyalist politician, in a recent television debate, "when the people in Britain say, 'Well, there is a problem in Northern Ireland, there is another community which is being discriminated against and we want to lay down a power-sharing system which will give them fair play after 50 years of giving you one-party rule,' you reject that."

"I am sure a Scot or a Welshman or a Yorkshireman would feel exactly as I feel now if it was put to him, 'Tell us why you should be and remain a citizen of the United Kingdom,' " McCusker responded, "because, of course, my family and my antecedents and all the other hundreds of thousands of Ulster people who feel like me, both Protestant and Catholic, have been citizens of the United Kingdom for 180 years. And for generations before that, under a different administration system, we were British subjects."

Torrens-Spence, a balding, well-dressed man of 67, added: "Most Catholics no doubt have an Irish identity, while we have a British identity.

"Most people in Britain reach a superficial answer and are ignorant of the problem here. They say, 'Yes, let's bail out of Ireland.' But the consequences would be the most terrific bloodbath." Referring to British resistance to the designs of Nazi Germany, in which Ulster played an important role, he added, "The people here are not going to surrender any more than the English would have in 1940."