London — Protestant extremists in Northern Ireland, thwarted in their attempts to wreck the Anglo-Irish agreement, have turned the full fury of their frustration on the overwhelmingly Protestant police force. This latest development -- full-scale attacks on the homes of police officers -- is regarded as one of the most serious turns of events in the province since civil rights marches by Roman Catholics erupted into sectarian violence in 1969.
The ability of the Royal Ulster Constabulary (RUC), the province's police force, to maintain law and order in the face of provocation by extreme Protestants has been generally seen as a critical test of whether the Anglo-Irish agreement can succeed. Ninety percent of the members of the RUC are Protestant.
The accord, signed last November, gives the overwhelmingly Catholic Republic of Ireland a say in the affairs of predominantly Protestant Northern Ireland, and police charge privately that it places them in an impossible position. As they see it, they have been put in the middle. They have to carry out an agreement that the majority of people in Northern Ireland strenuously oppose. (Two-thirds of the 1.5 million citizens of the province are Protestant, and most of whom favor continued ties to Britain.)
Foot-high graffiti, proclaiming ``Support the deal -- join the RUC'' and daubed on the walls of resolutely Protestant East Belfast, are indicative of the current smear campaign against police who don't dissociate themselves from the terms of the agreement.
Since March 3, there have been more than 120 acts of intimidation against the police in their homes. Attacks by so-called unionists -- Protestants who regard loyalty to the British crown and union with Britain as paramount -- have been increasing this past week. Attacks at home
To date, 14 police officers and their families have been forced to leave their solidly Protestant neighborhoods because Protestant extremists have hurled bricks or gasoline bombs at their homes.
In one of the worst recorded incidents, unionists broke down the front door of a woman police reservist who lived in a Protestant working-class stronghold. Two gasoline bombs were thrown inside, setting fire to the skirt of the policewoman's mother. Although the flames were extinguished, a small crowd that gathered outside jeered police guarding the house.
The intimidation is designed to make police quit the force or join the Protestant paramilitary groups in open rebellion against the Anglo-Irish agreement.
Though the British government insists that the accord gives the Republic of Ireland only an advisory role in the affairs of Northern Ireland, unionists view the agreement as a Trojan horse that will lead to eventual absorption into Ireland. Thus, assaults on police have become the focal point of a calculated campaign by Protestant extremists to make the accord unworkable.
The almost daily attacks on police officers' homes pose a new security threat to police.
Not only has the RUC in recent years assumed a far greater security role -- as the British Army's visibility has been consciously diminished -- but recent events suggest the police will now have to contain both Catholic and Protestant paramilitary groups. Calls for more troops
Until recently, Protestant paramilitary groups, such as the Ulster Defense Association and the banned and more shadowy Ulster Volunteer Force, have been largely quiescent. But threats to the police from them brought calls from prominent British Conservative politicians, such as Sir Eldon Griffiths, parliamentary representative for the Police Federation in England and Wales, for more British troops to be sent to Northern Ireland.
In a recent interview, Sir Eldon warned of the risks for Britain if too many troops were diverted to Northern Ireland to quell growing unrest. ``If we have a serious problem in Northern Ireland, it could seriously undermine NATO,'' he said.
For the time being, however, Northern Ireland's chief constable, Sir John Hermon, is insisting that there is no need for troop reinforcements.
Neverthless, the RUC, regarded as one of the world's best antiterrorist forces, is now facing a threat every bit as severe and menacing as that posed by the outlawed Irish Republican Army. Since 1969, 242 police officers or police reservists have been killed combating IRA terrorists. By contrast, since the turn of the century only 80 police officers have died on duty in the whole of England, Scotland, and Wales. The population of Northern Ireland represents only 2 percent of the total population of Britain and Northern Ireland. Bewildered police
Despite the much higher price exacted by terrorism in Northern Ireland, police there treat this risk as part of their duty. Even the upsurge of IRA attacks on police stations in recent months has done nothing to deter recruitment for the RUC. What bewilders officers, and what they say they cannot accept, is having their own people turn against them.
Police officers use the utmost discretion in concealing their home addresses to avoid becoming targets for IRA attacks. But the Protestant policemen are well known in their own tight-knit communities. Their homes are thus readily identifiable to Protestant extremists.
In an interview with this correspondent in Belfast, even before the latest wave of Protestant attacks took place, Alan Wright, chairman of the Police Federation of Northern Ireland, spoke of the dilemma facing his members: ``The question always posed by my members is that if the law-abiding majority turns against us, where do we live? We can't live in an enclave.'' Yet that is now viewed as the logical response to attacks on policemen's homes.
That the attacks take place, not while policemen are on duty, but while they are at home with their families, has compounded feelings of vulnerability.
The problem has become much more acute since the Anglo-Irish accord was signed, but it did not begin then. Deep-rooted conflict
Protestant anger was whipped up last summer at the time of the traditional march through Portadown by the Orangemen, an influential political and religious Protestant organization. But in a striking departure from the past, the route last year was rerouted by authorities away from solidly Catholic areas.
The change was made in consideration of Catholic sensitivities over the provocative nature of these marches, which glorify the Protestant victory of William of Orange (hence ``Orangemen'') over the Catholic King James II of England at the Battle of the Boyne nearly three centuries ago.
Unionist marchers who revere that date, July 12, 1795, as celebrating the defeat of the papacy in Northern Ireland regarded the rerouting of the march as an infringement of their democratic rights. Fighting broke out in Portadown when police blocked Protestants attempting to enter a Catholic area. As many as 53 policemen and 19 civilians were injured in the clashes.
On that occasion, policemen were taunted and jeered by Protestant youths. Many parents forbade their small children from fraternizing with policemen. In one instance, three 10-pence pieces, the modern-day equivalent of 30 pieces of silver, were thrown at a policemen accused of ``betraying'' his own Protestant people.
The violence that has broken out with the traditional Easter start of the Protestant ``marching season'' has left observers here with ominous feelings, since the marches don't reach their climax until midsummer.