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Political chess for four or more players, `People are fed up with murder and mayhem. They want something done'

By Alf McCrearySpecial to The Christian Science Monitor / June 13, 1988



Belfast

`IT is good to hear fine words instead of foul words,'' said John Alderdice, leader of Northern Ireland's middle-of-the-road Alliance Party. ``But fine words are not positive actions.'' The ``fine words'' refer to possible talks between the leader of Northern Ireland's Official Unionists and the prime minister of the Irish Republic. Dr. Alder-dice's warning is a reminder that speculation about talks between Irish Premier Charles Haughey and Official Unionist leader James Molyneaux is unlikely to lead to an immediate breakthrough in this province's chronic political stalemate.

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``I believe that real progress is some way off ... ,'' continued Dr. Alderdice, cutting straight to the heart of the recent speculation. ``The last few months have seen a measurable improvement in the political climate,'' he conceded. ``But I am rather concerned that at times there has been a tendency to overrate what has occurred and to substitute fantasy for reality.''

Undoubtedly, there has been some improvement in the political climate. Mr. Molyneaux has not ruled out the possibility of exploratory exchanges with Mr. Haughey, who has reciprocated with equal tact. Only a few months ago, Molyneaux's stance would have been regarded as treachery by unionists, who wish to maintain the province's link with Britain. Unionists traditionally have looked on the Irish Republic as an unfriendly neighbor, and on Charles Haughey as a hostile Irish republican who has repeatedly condemned Northern Ireland as a ``failed political entity.''

Tipping the scales back on a more hard-line tilt, the rumbustious Rev. Ian Paisley, head of the more conservative Democra-tic Unionists, warned that ``no unionist worth his salt would sit down at an all-Ireland constitutional conference, allowing Dublin to have any say in the future of Northern Ireland or to discuss a Northern Ireland government. It's not on today; it's not on tomorrow; it's not on forever.''

But behind these somewhat predictable smoke signals from Dr. Paisley and some other unionists, a subtle political game of chess is taking place. It centers on the outcome of the Anglo-Irish accord, which was signed almost three years ago by British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher and then Irish Prime Minister Garret FitzGerald.

The accord is a complex agreement that is bitterly opposed by unionist representatives of Northern Ireland's 1 million Protestants, most of whom believe that it represents the first step toward unification of the Irish island. In essence, the agreement gave Dublin a limited advisory role in the day-to-day affairs of Northern Ireland. In return, Dublin for the first time formally recognized the legitimacy of Northern Ireland, though the republic still claims the north as part of its territory.

The unionists have spent the past three years in an all-out attack on the accord, both politically and by rallying support on the streets. But during the early part of this year, many rank-and-file unionists generally recognized that this ``Ulster says no'' campaign had failed.

At stake now is an upcoming review of the accord's operation. The pact states that this review will take place three years after the November 1985 signing.

Some observers, such as Sydney Elliott, senior lecturer in political science at the Queen's University of Belfast, believes some window-dressing is taking place. ``The fact that a review of the operation of the agreement is coming up in November means that some unionists are trying to shape what those talks might be,'' he says. ``They are trying all sorts of tactics to get the agreement set aside, and some unionists are even willing to talk to Charles Haughey in Dublin to try ... to get him to put some pressure on the British.''

Others disagree. Fred Proctor, a leading Official Unionist on Belfast's City Council and a respected rank-and-file member of the party, believes Molyneaux is sincere. ``There is genuine movement on the part of the Official Unionist leadership,'' Mr. Proctor asserts, ``but also a determined opposition to such moves from the unionists in `middle-management.'''

Unionists know that Haughey is no great fan of the accord. As Elliott says, ``He did not help to bring it about and he does not defend it. He merely works it.''

Even so, if Haughey could get some movement from the unionist monolith, it would be a political victory. Proctor says Haugh-ey ``would like to go down in history as the man who brought about some normalization of relationship between the unionists and Dublin. And if Charlie and the right-wing in Northern Ireland could agree, who would dare disagree with them?'' Proctor sees an international parallel: ``Who would have thought that Nixon would have visited China or that Reagan would even have gone to Moscow?''