Belfast — Northern Ireland's Protestant unionists and Roman Catholic nationalists have never been further apart. This is so, even if physical confrontation between these two major opponents -- divided over politics and religion -- has been limited, say observers of the Northern Ireland scene.
The Catholic nationalists cherish the idea of unification of Northern Ireland with the Republic of Ireland. The Protestant unionists favor continuing the existing relationship with Great Britain, and frequently express their feelings in parades or ``marches,'' as they are called here.
But the Protestants are less concerned right now with marches, and more concerned with the fact that, for the first time since 1973, the governments of Britain and the Republic of Ireland are locked in negotiations about a future role for the Republic in the affairs of Northern Ireland.
Every week there is fresh speculation about the progress of the Anglo-Irish talks, suggesting that the British are about to sign a new friendship treaty with Dublin. Both governments remain noncommital.
Latest reports indicate that the chances of limited agreement in time for a possible summit this fall are only 50-50, but that has not mollified unionist opponents.
An earlier Anglo-Irish attempt to find a solution in 1974, involving a power-sharing government of Protestants and Catholics did not succeed. British loyalists are vehemently opposed to Dublin having any say in Northern Ireland, and current plans to provide a consultative role for the Republic far exceed the provisions proposed in the 1974 agreement.
The legal Protestant paramilitary organization, the Ulster Defense Association, has helped set up a United Ulster Loyalist front, with right-wing politicians, which is already warning of a ``British sell out.''
But still the Protestants marched, even though the weather has been abysmal. At some marches spectators have rioted, leaving government security forces caught in the middle.
Last year a man was killed by police during disturbances at a rally in West Belfast, a stronghold of the outlawed Catholic Irish Republican Army (IRA). But there have been no deaths this year resulting from the demonstrations.
One of the most active Protestant organizations is the the Orange Order. Their marches work up to the July 12 celebration of the 1690 victory of England's Protestant William III (William of Orange, hence the name of the order) over the Catholic James II. With almost all their marches, problems arose over the routes the marchers chose to follow.
Often the Orange Order plans to march through Catholic residential areas, as a way of asserting Protestant domination. But with the Catholic population in this country increasing to 40 percent and expanding into new living areas, authorities have been forced to reroute parades considered provocative.
When this is done, the Protestants immediately claim that their rights have been infringed, and that the London government is taking its orders from Dublin. Tension mounts, and a massive police presence often needed to enforce a ban sometimes creates the violence it is supposed to prevent.
Even moderate Orange Order leaders, like the Rev. Martin Smyth, condemn the use of police in what he calls ``a political campaign against loyalists.'' The Rev. Ian Paisley, known for his more radical views, has been unrestrained: ``We will march and continue to march,'' he said, calling for the resignation of Sir John Hermon, chief of the Royal Ulster Constabulary.
On the other side of the political fence, there is no real equivalent to the Protestant Orange Order, but the militant republican movement, spearheaded by the IRA and its political wing, Sinn Fein, focused its protest in marches to commemorate the Aug. 9 anniversary of the introduction of internment in 1971, when 300 demonstrators were arrested and held without trial.
Although internment was finally abolished in 1976, it remains a rallying point for all nationalists, enhanced by the annual visit of the delegation from Irish Northern Aid (NORAID), a New York-based organization which raises funds to support the activities of the IRA.
As NORAID was declared an IRA agent, the visit has ensured wide media coverage, and police believe it inspires an upsurge of IRA violence.
This year there were three massive car bombings over a six-week period -- two in Belfast and one in a village -- plus a series of explosive and arson attacks.
Unionists are stll reeling from the election last May when 59 Sinn Fein candidates were elected to local councils. Sinn Fein publicly supports the use of the ballot box and the bullet in opposing continued British rule. Attempts to exclude the republicans have so far been unsuccessful, but the disruption continues, and the government may have to suspend some councils.
Critics accuse the British of illogically refusing to meet Sinn Fein or to ban it, but expecting unionists to negotiate with convicted terrorists in the local councils.
Margaret Thatcher desperately wants to do something to help moderate nationalists to play their part in Northern Ireland by letting them look to Dublin for support. But she may well conclude that the time, and the population balance, is not yet right for a dramatic initiative. The danger is that if moderate nationalism declines, the alternative is a more militant IRA.