Courage on Northern Ireland

THE Anglo-Irish agreement on Northern Ireland deserves the world's support. It is a first step in the lengthy process of reaching accommodation between the Protestant and Roman Catholic sides in Northern Ireland, at odds since the 1921 partition of Ireland. It is an effort to strengthen the forces of moderation by weaning citizens in both camps away from extremism and violence: An important aim of the pact is to illustrate that diplomacy and negotiation can achieve results, hence there is no need to resort to violence. Although the number of fatalities from sectarian violence has diminished in the past year, support for the more radical Sinn Fein political arm of the illegal Irish Republican Army has grown recently at the expense of the relatively moderate , and predominantly Catholic, Social Democratic and Labor Party.

Both British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher and Irish Prime Minister Garret FitzGerald showed political courage in reaching the agreement. It provides a special conference group, composed half of British and half of Republic of Ireland civil servants, to help produce policy in domestic issues of concern to the Catholic minority, such as employment and security.

Mrs. Thatcher risked overwhelming opposition, including violence, from Northern Ireland's majority Protestants because the pact for the first time gives the Republic of Ireland a role in governing Northern Ireland; Protestants fear eventual Catholic domination in a unified island nation. Massive Protestant protests torpedoed an agreement 11 years ago, but the Thatcher government vows to remain firm this time against Protestant protests. Already there is vocal opposition from militants.

Mr. FitzGerald risked opposition from militants among Northern Ireland's Catholics on grounds he surrendered their desire to be reunited with the Republic of Ireland to the south. As part of the pact, FitzGerald agreed that Northern Ireland should remain part of Great Britain unless or until Ulster's majority wants to change that status.

British approval of this pact would have been difficult to anticipate in the months following the Republic of Ireland's initiative of May l984; its New Ireland Forum proposed several alternatives for dealing with the Northern Ireland problem. The Thatcher government's initial response, after a several-month hiatus, essentially was one of opposition.

It is time now to wait and see what comes next as the two leaders seek the anticipated approval by their nations' Parliaments within the next week or two. Both sides count on the United States to provide a substantial infusion of money over the next few years to rebuild Northern Ireland's shattered economy, and they look for the announced support from both President Reagan and House Speaker Thomas P. O'Neill to be translated speedily into economic action.

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