The Irish government is confident of popular support for last Friday's agreement between Prime Minister Garret FitzGerald and British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher on Northern Ireland. But it is also acutely aware that perhaps never in the long history of Anglo-Irish conflict and negotiation has the Irish public been so skeptical or apathetic.
Opinion in the Irish Republic generally favors a deal with Britain that would:
Give the Irish government a guaranteed say in the affairs of Northern Ireland.
Enable Irish representatives to speak up for and defend minority Roman Catholic interests in the predominantly Protestant North (Protestants make up about two-thirds of Northern Ireland's population of 1.5 million). This reportedly will lead to reform of the British-controlled security forces and in the administration of justice.
Reduce terrorism, with its spillover effect on Irish trade and investment and its high cost to Irish taxpayers for border security -- the basis of considerable public resentment.
The historic accord signed by Dr. FitzGerald and Mrs. Thatcher Friday is designed to have precisely these effects. But misgivings continue to plague not only the general public but many high-level politicians and officials.
There is widespread concern that the FitzGerald government could find itself in a position of ``responsibility without power.'' The concern is that, without an unprecedented amount of British good will, commitment, and hard work, the new arrangement will fail and the Irish government will be powerless to influence events.
The concern is reinforced by the failure of the last FitzGerald-Thatcher summit meeting a year ago. In May 1984, the New Ireland Forum, representing three Southern parties and the Northern Social Democratic and Labor Party (SDLP), had proposed three ``options'' for a settlement. They were: a unitary Irish state with civil and religious guarantees for the North's 1 million Protestants but not under British sovereignty; a federal arrangement; or joint British-Irish authority over Northern Ireland.
In November 1984, Mrs. Thatcher dismissed all three options, in each case with the single word ``out.'' Her move, along with the unusual length of the subsequent negotiations, caused strong public disillusionment here.
But an agreement has now been struck, which -- if it does not satisfy the aspirations of the forum -- does give FitzGerald's government a constitutional foothold in the affairs of Northern Ireland and a guaranteed role in looking after Catholic and nationalist interests there.
The attitude of the main opposition party here, Fianna Fail was not fully clear immediately after the signing of the agreement. The party prides itself on being more ``nationalist'' or ``republican'' than the other constitutional parties, and its leader, Charles Haughey, has come very close several times in recent weeks to condemning the pact in advance. But the government insists that Mr. Haughey's stance does not amount to outright opposition, and some of his close advisers are believed to have urged him not to oppose the agreement.
John Hume, the leader of the North's moderate and largely Catholic SDLP, is popular and influential in the South, and his support for the accord is expected to have a major effect on public opinion, including opinions within Fianna Fail.
The Irish government has put an enormous effort into promoting the agreement abroad and into getting promises of declarations of support from foreign governments, especially the United States administration. FitzGerald's government places considerable hope in the promise of US financial aid that could be particularly useful in depressed areas on both sides of the border.