Loyalists set to harden opposition to Anglo-Irish pact

Northern Ireland's Protestants appear set to harden their opposition to the Anglo-Irish accord. A campaign of civil disobedience, sources say, is likely to be the next step after Monday's strike, which brought large parts of the province to a standstill. Northern Irish Protestants loyal to Britain may refuse to pay taxes, rents, and municipal service rates, these sources say. The possibility of further strike action cannot be ruled out as the loyalists step up their demands for British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher to end the Anglo-Irish agreement.

The agreement, signed between Britain and the Republic of Ireland last November, allows the Republic an advisory role in Northern Irish affairs. The accord was welcomed by most of Northern Ireland's half-million Roman Catholics, who want closer links with the Republic, but opposed by most of the province's 1 million Protestants who want to stay united with Britain.

The Rev. Ian Paisley, leader of Northern Ireland's Democratic Unionists, said yesterday that there were no major plans for further strikes, but the campaign against the accord would continue. ``We will have to use every weapon in our armory to prevent ourselves being driven down the road to Dublin,'' he said.

The ``Unionists'' (Protestants loyal to Britain) won reelection in 14 out of 15 parliamentary seats in a Jan. 23 election, held after 15 Unionist members resigned in protest against the Anglo-Irish accord. The Unionists argued that the reelection support they received gave them the right to step up their opposition to the accord.

The strike organizers promised a peaceful strike but it was overtaken by widespread violence and intimidation. Police were attacked by loyalist groups and despite efforts to keep roads open, a number were blocked. Many people complained of intimidation as they were turned back on their way to work by strikers at barricades and said that police in some areas did not try and prevent this. The chief constable of Northern Ireland's police force admitted that there might have been shortcomings in some areas, but stressed ``the stupendous effort made by the police deserves great congratulations.''

The strike caused a huge loss of production in major industries and many service organizations. These included power plants, schools, shops, and factories. Senior government ministers underlined the folly of such a day of disruption in a province where unemployment is currently running 21 percent.

Despite the violence, however, the British government seems unlikely to set aside the Anglo-Irish agreement. Nicholas Scott, the junior minister in charge of law and order said, ``Sooner or later we will have to talk. The prime minister's door is open for every consultation, and I hope the leaders of the Unionist family will avail themselves of that offer.''

Only one week earlier it looked as if Mrs. Thatcher and Unionist leaders had agreed on talks which might have led to a break in the deadlock. Paisley and James Molyneaux, leader of the Official Unionists, met Thatcher in London and agreed to consider meeting again for further discussions. But they were overruled by the strike committee in Belfast.

Politically, the road ahead is unclear.

Some observers suggest that Unionist leaders have been overtaken by the hard-liners, but party sources deny this. However, it appears that the politicians may have to work hard to prevent the initiative from passing to those who believe that the time has passed for the politics of consultation. There have been some predictions of a repeat of 1974, when an indefinite strike brought down a similar initiative.

The Official Unionists had put out feelers over the weekend for talks with Catholic leaders and for further talks between Belfast, London, and Dublin -- provided the Anglo-Irish accord is suspended. But Irish nationalist politicians on both sides of the border are suspicious of any move to set aside or dilute the agreement.

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