Events here over the past few days have fueled the worst fears and frustrations of Northern Ireland's 1 million Protestants. The result is a growing risk of direct confrontation between the Protestants and the British government.
The Nov. 14 murder of an Ulster Unionist member of the British Parliament, the Rev. Robert Bradford, by the illegal Irish Republican Army is what has triggered the Protestant anger. Making matters worse, it came not long after the prime ministers of Britain and the Irish Republic had met in London and agreed on closer cooperation through the Anglo-Irish Council.
Together these events have given renewed weight to two basic Protestant ''loyalist'' (loyal to Britain) fears:
1. That the British government intends in the long term to sell out Ulster to the Irish Republic to the south.
2. That the government's security policy is not strong enough.
This latter view is reinforced by the apparent ease with which the IRA killed Bradford, despite the presence of an armed bodyguard. And in the week preceding his death the IRA killed and wounded several part-time members of the security forces, including the 17-year-old son of a soldier in the Ulster Defense Regiment.
In short, the majority of Ulster's loyalists today feel betrayed politically and physically at the mercy of IRA terrorists. This despite the government's reassurances that there is no ''sellout'' to Dublin and that everything possible is being done to combat the IRA.
The bitter feelings of the Protestant loyalists' are expressed in a call for widespread demonstrations of sympathy during Mr. Bradford's funeral. (Bradford was an outspoken critic of the Provisional IRA.) They are also evident in Official Unionist Party leader James Molyneaux's threat to set up a civilian vigilante force to protect Protestants unless government security measures are stepped up.
Meanwhile the Rev. Ian Paisley, leader of the numerically smaller Democratic Unionists, is making a bid for outright Protestant ''loyalist'' leadership. He has warned that the British government ''would be taught its lesson'' come midnight Nov. 23 by the people of Ulster. He assured Roman Catholics that they had nothing to fear, but the outcome of his threat is awaited with uncertainty.
To British, and indeed European and American observers the Anglo-Irish Council proposed by the British and Irish governments would seem nothing more than a sensible step by those most interested in a peaceful solution to the Northern Ireland crisis.
The joint communique was at pains to spell out the nature of the council: It would involve ''regular meetings between the two governments at ministerial and official levels to discuss matters of common concern.''
In Northern Ireland, however, it has been seen very differently by all shades of Protestant opinion. Paisley summed up the gut reaction of loyalists this way:
''If Mrs. Thatcher thinks she is going to take us by the process of gradualism to a United Ireland, she is absolutely wrong, and she has not gauged the feelings of the Unionist people that they will die rather than submit themselves to Dublin.''
In order to exacerbate loyalist fears and security, the Provisional IRA's campaign of violence has continued, particularly in border areas where Protestants in isolated homesteads feel especially vulnerable. And the murder of Bradford, with apparent ease, in the heartland of his Belfast constituency, has brought home the realization that no loyalist is safe in his own country.
The British government has a massive task to reassure unionists on security, and to press ahead on the Anglo-Irish Council without leading to a direct confrontation with Ulster loyalists.