N. Ireland vote: stage is set for Thatcher-loyalist clash

The message is repetitious and uncompromising: ``Ulster says no.'' On the road from Belfast to Dublin, that message, emblazoned on hundreds of political stickers, is affixed to every directional sign. More often than not, the sticker is placed purposely underneath the word ``Dublin,'' capital of the Republic of Ireland, as if to drive home the Unionist message that Northern Ireland must not go down the political road to unification with its neighbor to the south and west.

At a packed news conference in Belfast, the unmistakable, eminent, booming voice of the Rev. Ian Paisley elaborates the Unionist message: ``We will never submit to any Dublin rule.''

That's not the interpretation British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher places on the Anglo-Irish accord -- giving the Irish Republic a consultative role in the affairs of Northern Ireland -- she signed last November with Irish Prime Minister Garret FitzGerald.

That is, however, the way it is being interpreted by this predominantly Protestant province as it goes to the polls today. The by-election was engineered by 15 Unionists who resigned their seats in the British Parliament to show their party's opposition to a deal it feels was imposed on it.

Trusting that the Unionist hold on the seats would be perpetuated (the Unionists hold 15 of the 17 seats they contested in the 1983 election), the election is their way of showing that without popular support, the Anglo-Irish deal cannot survive.

But Mrs. Thatcher has preempted any move by the Unionists to regard this as a referendum to repudiate the accord by saying ahead of time that the result of the election is immaterial. To international acclaim, the British prime minister has declared her determination to see the deal through. To sweeten the appeal to back the agreement, the United States Congress is expected to approve $500 million in aid to help the economically depressed border areas of both Northern Ireland and the Irish Republic.

Thus, the stage is set for the clash of two immovable forces:

Thatcher's determination to move ahead with the agreement and the Unionists' resolution to defy the British prime minister, who loyalists to Britain regard as having betrayed their cause.

In a recent session with US correspondents in Britain, Thatcher said the Northern Ireland reaction to the accord ``was much stronger than we thought it would be.''

According to a high-level source in the British government, the Northern Ireland response has been perplexing. While the violent protest has been less than expected, the broad constitutional opposition has been much greater.

Unionist leaders see no contradiction. To them it's part of a clear-cut strategy to minimize street violence, which runs the risk of resulting in confrontation with the British government.

They believe this step will swing crucial moderate middle-class support behind the Unionists so that the British government is faced with a broad-based consensus of opposition. Playing a long-term game, Unionists hope to wear the Thatcher government down.

As James Molyneux, leader of the Official Unionist Party pointedly says, ``It took five months before the Sunningdale power-sharing agreement collapsed.''

The Sunningdale agreement, signed in December 1973, was an attempt to establish a ``Council of Ireland.'' Similar to the recent Anglo-Irish agreement, the 1973 agreement involved the acceptance of the Irish Republic's limited jurisdiction over Northern Ireland.

The next few months are thought to be critical for the Anglo-Irish agreement. Unionists interpret the consultative role of the Irish Republic as giving Dublin, a foreign capital, a decision-making role in their internal affairs -- an idea they find repugnant. Britain insists the Republic of Ireland's involvement is only consultative but could be decisive in joint security control.

The governments of Britain and the Irish Republic know that the Anglo-Irish agreement must produce results quickly, particularly in reducing violence and improving border security, if more moderate Unionists are to be won over to backing the accord.

Seamus Mallon, deputy leader of the mainly Roman Catholic Social and Labour Party (SDLP), which solidly backs the accord, said in an interview that he feels the momentum for appealing to moderates depends on the two governments ``keeping their nerve.''

He acknowledges, however, that things ``could become pretty difficult as the marching season approaches.'' Historically, many of the Unionist uprisings occured in July and August. Thus, during those months, Protestant feelings run strong, and the period is often referred to here as the ``marching season.''

Mr. Mallon's hope is that once Northern Ireland gets through that period, the SDLP and other backers of the accord can ``get down to the serious business of negotiations with the more rational strand of Unionism.''

The ability of both Mr. Paisley's Democratic Unionists and Mr. Molyneux's Official Unionists to reach a common agreement in protest against the accord has enabled Protestants to present a united face to the British government.

But some of the more moderate Unionists are unhappy at the prospect of taking on the British government, and political observers anticipate that once the election is over, the Unionist front may not appear as united as it was in the run-up to the election.

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