Anglo-Irish agreement: a modest beginning

The much-vaunted, long-awaited, frequently postponed Anglo-Irish agreement is about to be hatched. After the buildup in hopes and fears that was generated by 15 months of secret back-and-forth diplomacy between Britain and Ireland, the actual outcome is relatively modest.

No, it will not be the final, grand settlement of the problems of Northern Ireland that have plagued succes-sive British governments for generations. The history of that troubled province is too complicated to permit a neat, easily outlined solution.

No, the signing of a document by Irish Prime Minister Garret FitzGerald and British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher (venue and time remain a secret for security reasons, but it should happen in days) will not mean an end to the violence that has taken the lives of about 2,500 people since ``the troubles'' began in 1969.

No, the deal struck between Dublin and London will not result in a yielding of United Kingdom sovereignty over Northern Ireland. This hasn't allayed the fears of the Protestant majority that an erosion of British authority over the province is taking place that could eventually lead to a loss of sovereignty.

What it does try to do is provide additional measures that will give the Catholic minority in the North greater confidence to participate in the running of Northern Ireland.

If the agreement delivers less than might be expected, it is still viewed as significant. Never before have the Irish and British governments worked together so well or been more sensitive to the political hang-ups of the other side.

Britain, for instance, is relieved that Dublin is resigned for the time being to let the dream of Irish unity -- integrating the six provinces of predominantly Protestant Northern Ireland with the overwhelmingly Catholic Republic of Ireland -- take a back seat to resolving political problems within Northern Ireland itself first.

Dublin, to London's satisfaction, has also made it clear that no solution can be imposed on Northern Ireland without the consent of the Protestant majority, which outnumbers Catholics by more than 2 to 1.

The Irish Republic, in turn, takes comfort from the fact that Britain recognizes that the Irish government has a legitimate interest in the affairs of the minority Catholics in the North, many but not all of them republican and Irish nationalists by sentiment.

To that end, the British and Irish governments are agreed that there should be an Anglo-Irish body with ministerial input from both countries developing policy in such critical areas of Catholic concern as the economy, security, and the courts.

That would for the first time give Ireland a voice in the northern province without giving it powers to exercise it.

The sticking point in the agreement is over the siting of the joint civil-servant secretariat to service such a body. Ireland feels it makes no sense unless it is based in Belfast. The security-conscious British are concerned that, located there, it would become a physical target for Protestant paramilitary groups.

The agreement also envisages a security commission as well as a parliamentary body in which members of both the House of Commons and the Dail (the Irish House) could debate Anglo-Irish issues.

Yet any agreement arranged along the new Dublin-London axis is no guarantee that it can work on the ground.

The British government is well aware that implacable Protestant opposition has undermined all past political initiatives on Northern Ireland.

In a conversation that took place early on during the negotiations, John Hume, the leader of the largely Catholic Social Democratic and Labor Party (SDLP) indicated that for the first time Protestants wouldn't be permitted to exercise a veto to thwart a settlement as they had done in the past.

The British government is repeatedly charged with backing down whenever Protestants make threats. Yet one reason for the holdup in the latest agreement has been the powerful lobbying from the Unionists, both the Official Unionists led by James Molyneux and the Democratic Unionists led by the Rev. Ian Paisley, who have made common cause.

Reverend Paisley has warned that if Mrs. Thatcher chooses to ignore Protestant feelings on the subject by brushing aside the elected Protestant representatives, any agreement would be resisted ``to the death.''

In an interview at Westminster, Mr. Molyneux, leader of the larger Official Unionist Party, indicated that if trouble broke out in the aftermath of an agreement and elected Unionist representatives such as himself were called upon to plead for restraint, the reaction from Protestant paramilitaries, Molyneux argues, would be quite blunt:

``Who are you? Oh yes, you were yesterday's boys.''

The British government knows these are not idle threats. The 1973 three-way, power-sharing Sunningdale Agreement worked out by the Conservative government of Edward Heath was torpedoed by Northern Ireland's Protestant workers in 1974. A general strike brought the economy to a halt. The experiment was abandoned.

The British government is hoping that 1985 is not 1974; that Protestant ardor for taking to the streets has cooled; and that, for once, high unemployment will be an ally for the government and inhibit Protestants from going out on strike. The jobless rate in Northern Ireland is around 20 percent.

If this latest agreement can take hold, then British and Irish government will have broken the political logjam over Northern Ireland and started a momentum for peace. But, as one principal negotiator in the talks pointed out privately, the agreement provides little more than a beginning in the overall peace structure.

British government. Northern Ireland is costly, both diplomatically and financially. The October 1984 Brighton bombing brought home more starkly than ever the threat of terrorism to mainland Britain. Like Ireland, the British government is taking a more pragmatic, less ideological view. This worries Northern Ireland Protestants who, despite London's assurances of continued links to the British crown, suspect a British sellout. Republic of Ireland. It retains its constitutional territorial claims to all of Ireland -- North and South -- but accepts de facto partition. The opposition Fianna Fail opposes the current deal on the grounds that it perpetuates partition.

Serious economic problems make Ireland vulnerable to political extremism. Like Britain, Ireland has avested interest in giving Northern Ireland's Social Democratic and Labor Party, which believes in constitutional politics and shuns violence, a greater political role in Northern Ireland. The idea is to cut the ground from under the Sinn Fein, political arm of the outlawed Irish Republican Army, which -- if it secured a beachhead in the North -- could be tempted to switch its revolutionary energies to th e South. Social Democratic and Labor Party. In many respects, Northern Ireland's SDLP is the object of all the negotiations, because it opts for a nonviolent, constitutional approach. But with the SDLP vote stagnating, both Britain and Ireland feel an agreement is essential to breathe new life into the party. The problem is that the SDLP is largely a one-man band led by John Hume, viewed by many as perhaps the smartest politician north and south of the border. But the party conveys a fuddy-duddy image a nd is outclassed in local ward politics by more active Sinn Fein workers. Sinn Fein: The political wing of the outlawed IRA, it opposes any deal struck by Dublin and London. It believes Britain has no right to be in Northern Ireland, and would be content only with Britain pulling out totally. The Sinn Fein has gained ground politically by arguing with both guns and ballots. The fact that it collected 100,000 votes in the last general election has been powerful ammunition in puncturing opponents' assertions that it has the support of only a tiny, violent minority. Unionists: Broadly speaking, they constitute Northern Ireland's Protestant majority, which wants to keep constitutional ties with the British crown intact. Because of fierce attachment to their British links (they are also called Loyalists) they strenuously oppose any internal role for the Irish government. This they view as unacceptable interference by a foreign and potentially hostile power (because Ireland refuses to give up its territorial claims). Unionists are always watching for any Brit ish government move toward ``gradualism'' -- the process by which London would gradually give up control of Northern Ireland, allowing it to be absorbed into a unitary Irish state.

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