Northern Ireland's election will test Anglo-Irish accord. Unionists hope Protestant voters will signal opposition to pact

The people of Northern Ireland go to the polls Thursday in one of the oddest elections in the province's 65-year history. The election is unusual for three reasons:

It was forced by 15 ``Unionists'' who resigned en masse from the British Parliament to protest last November's Anglo-Irish accord which gives the Republic of Ireland an advisory role in the government of Northern Ireland. The Unionists are Protestant politicians who favor continuing Northern Ireland's status as an autonomous province of the United Kingdom.

The outcome of the election is a foregone conclusion: The Unionists will win almost all of the 15 seats.

Everyone knows this -- including the British and Irish governments, and the Unionists' political opponents in Northern Ireland, also known as Ulster.

What is not known, however, is the extent of the backing for the Unionists.

The Unionists are seeking the largest vote in the history of their movement in an effort to demonstrate to the British government the extent of Protestant opposition to the Anglo-Irish accord. Loyal to Britain, most Protestants are concerned that the agreement will eventually divide power for governing Ulster between the Irish Republic and Britain. The Unionist slogan is uncompro- mising: ``Ulster says no.''

The 15 Ulster Unionists represent a large section of the 1 million Protestants in Ulster who outnumber Roman Catholics by two to one. Most Ulster Catholics favor union of Northern Ireland with the Irish Republic, though some prefer the British link because of the economic benefits it offers.

The Anglo-Irish agreement, signed Nov. 15 by British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher and Irish Prime Minister Garret Fitzgerald, was a constitutional watershed. For the first time, the Irish Republic agreed to recognize the validity of Northern Ireland. Significantly, however, Britain -- also for the first time -- agreed to give the Irish Republic government a voice in the affairs of Northern Ireland. A senior official of the Irish Republic and his aides were allowed to come north to work with Britain's Northern Ireland Secretary, Tom King. Subsequent meetings were held in Dublin and London.

These moves were opposed by the majority of Protestants. With time, there was mellowing among some Protestants who felt that the Anglo-Irish agreement was worth a try, particularly if it led to a concerted drive to halt violence, including activities of the outlawed Irish Republican Army (IRA).

However, a significant number of Protestants -- including the smaller Democratic Unionist Party led by the Rev. Ian Paisley -- took a harder view. Claiming that they had not been consulted and that the accord was the first step towards Irish unity, they held marches and demonstrations. The danger of Protestant violence remains, but the elections are seen by observers here as one way of channeling Protestant protests peacefully.

In four areas where they had no opposition, the Unionists have fielded candidates to ensure that there will be a vote and that the Unionist votes will be counted. Thus, as the Unionists see it, when election day is over, a province-wide Protestant vote against the agreement will be added up, and a clear indication of Unionist opposition relayed to Mrs. Thatcher.

The election is also being contested by the Social Democratic and Labour Party, which mainly represents Catholics, and which backs the Anglo-Irish pact. It is possible that the SDLP may snatch one or two seats from Unionists who narrowly won the last elections. The pro-IRA party, Sinn Fein, which opposes the agreement because it has led to the Irish Republic ``recognizing'' Northern Ireland, is expected to field four candidates.

If the Unionists poll well, it will boost their morale though that will not impress Thatcher who is determined to see the Anglo-Irish deal succeed. If she refuses to bend, the Unionists may resort to civil disobedience and end contact with British officials. There could also be a move by some hardliners toward independence for Ulster. This option is regarded by the vast majority of Protestants -- and Catholics -- as a potential economic disaster, because of the extent of economic assistance from the British government.

It is unlikely that there will be a massive pro-agreement vote, resulting in a resounding defeat for the Unionists. Thus, the road ahead looks much the same as after every election for the past 16 years -- political stalemate, more violence, and uncertainty.

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