Seldom, on paper, has a British prime minister been given a stronger hand to deal with the vexing problem of Northern Ireland. Yet the political realities here suggest that Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher may have a fight on her hands making the new Anglo-Irish settlement stick.
The first real expression of Protestant wrath comes this weekend in a major Belfast rally against the agreement. The Anglo-Irish accord, signed Nov. 15, has so far won Mrs. Thatcher the goodwill and support of the international community, including the Irish government. She also has the massive backing of the British Parliament, which is certain to approve the legally binding treaty next week.
Unionists, standard bearers of Protestant sentiment in Northern Ireland who favor continued ties with Britain, have been effectively isolated. This is partly because the British are impatient with continuing problems in Northern Ireland and partly because the language used by Unionist members of Parliament has not helped their cause.
Yet for all Thatcher's skills as a debater, politician, and tactician, there is no guarantee that a settlement designed to bring about reconciliation in Northern Ireland will work. Thatcher may take some solace from the ruling of a London high court judge. He turned down a written application from leading Protestant Unionists to challenge the agreement. It was not, he ruled, an appropriate matter for judicial review.
One analyst believes that, with the fulcrum of power shifting away from the Protestant majority to an Anglo-Irish condominium, the province could be moving ``from a period of relative stability to real instability.'' Northern Ireland watchers say a settlement can only work if it has strong community support, and it's not there yet.
Unionists, who have the bulk of Protestant votes, are withdrawing all contact with British officials. Official Unionists said they planned to expel from the party the Lord Mayor of Belfast, John Carson, because he went ahead and met Nov. 20 with Tom King, secretary of state for Northern Ireland.
Irate Belfast citizens accosted Mr. King as he arrived for a luncheon at city hall. He was grabbed around the neck and jostled but not hurt. The British government hopes moderate Protestants will not prejudge the agreement and instead read the text, which gives the majority cast-iron constitutional guaran-tees.
But many ordinary Protestants, after a reading, say the text is worse than they feared.
A former leader of the Social Democratic and Labour Party (SDLP), which represents the majority of Catholic voters, fears the summit will be regarded as a victory for Irish nationalism and a defeat for Ulster unionism.
Recent developments point once again to the difficulty of arriving at an acceptable formula that doesn't give the impression that one community is gaining at the expense of the other.
Both the Irish and the British hoped they had achieved that kind of balance in the agreement, although there is little doubt that both governments felt that if the Catholic minority was to have any confidence in participating in a heavily Protestant-influenced system, an Irish dimension had to be added to the mix.
That means both the physical presence and the participation of Dublin ministers and their civil servants in the Protestant heartland meeting with their British counterparts. John Hume, leader of the SDLP, has attempted to THATCHER16THATCHER9 allay Protestant fears by saying that it would not only be ``impossible'' but also ``unthinkable'' to crush the Protestant heritage. The consensus here is that if progress is to be made, the sponsors of the agreement must address themselves to two overriding concerns:
Resentment among Protestants stemming from their assertions that they were shut out of the talks. To many political observers, the reasons why they were denied any input -- while SDLP's John Hume was a pivotal influence -- are self-evident: Past Protestant intransigence has stymied peace moves.
The Irish dimension. According to Irish Foreign Minister, Peter Barry, the Irish identity of the minority nationalist community has essentially been disregarded.
It was to redress that imbalance that Irish participation on a consultative basis is now being brought into the Northern Ireland political equation. But nothing burns as deeply into the Protestant psyche as the thought that the concerns of the province, which they regard as exclusively the preserve of the British government, should be a responsibility shared with an Irish Catholic republic.
In a recent interview at Westminster, James Molyneux, leader of the Official Unionist Party, spoke of the implications of giving the Irish Republic a say in the running of Northern Ireland: ``It's eroding the [United Kingdom's] authority, leading to an erosion of sovereignty. It would be comparable to the Falklands situation -- to Mrs. Thatcher saying the wishes of the islanders are paramount and the rights of the citizens will not be diminished and then having the Foreign Office establish in Ft. Stanle y a joint commission to advise the civil administrator on how to govern the Falklands.''