Loyalist opposition is hardening on a possible joint Anglo-Irish package on the future of Northern Ireland. Talks between senior officials from London and Dublin have been continuing for the past year in an attempt to produce a deal to end terrorism and to secure a peaceful future for the entire island through the political process.
Government ministers in both capitals have told Ulster's loyalists that they have nothing to fear, but Jim Allister, a leading member of the Rev. Ian Paisley's hard-line Democratic Unionists, said that such assurances were ``like wishing turkeys a happy Christmas.''
The Anglo-Irish package is likely to be announced in November, and signed at a summit between British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher and Irish Premier Garret FitzGerald. So far the government officials on both sides have remained tight-lipped about any details.
There is strong speculation, however, that a joint agreement would include greater cooperation on border security and some restructuring of the Ulster Defence Regiment (UDR). This unit of part-time soldiers is comprised mainly of Protestants, partly because many of the Roman Catholics who joined earlier were targets for the Provisional wing of the illegal Irish Republican Army.
The UDR, strongly supported by Protestants, is criticised by many Catholics. Any attempt at restructuring it would be seen by Protestants as an attempt to appease Catholic opinion.
More significantly, an Anglo-Irish agreement might give the Dublin government a more consultative and a more direct role in Ulster's affairs.
There is speculation that this might lead to a joint secretariat, with the Irish government having an office in Belfast. This would be strongly resisted by northern unionists who favor retaining their link with Britain.
The problem facing both governments is to agree on a package that would reassure Northern Ireland's half-millon Catholics that their Irish nationalism has not been overlooked -- hence the closer involvement with Dublin. Equally, both governments would wish to reassure the province's 1 million Protestants that Northern Ireland will remain British, as long as the majority so wish.
Considerable political skill is required by government ministers on both sides to push a package through, but their reassurances are falling on deaf Protestant ears. Dick Spring, the Irish deputy prime minister, told unionists that they had nothing to fear from Dublin. He added, ``we seek an accommodation with you which will strengthen your influence, not diminish it.'' Mr. Paisley said: ``if I am asked whether I will allow myself to be pushed at the point of a bayonet directed by Mrs. Thatcher down
the Dublin road, I say we will resist to the death.''
This may be unionist rhetoric aimed at trying to weaken the resolve of the British and Irish governments to press on with a meaningful Anglo-Irish package.
Equally, it may be more than rhetoric. But no-one can predict the outcome until the proposals are made public. What is certain is that any proposals will be bound to offend someone.
In the meantime, both the London and Dublin governments seem convinced that to do nothing and to allow the present deadlock to continue might have even worse effects in the long-term and be the worst option of all.