Protestant leaders in Northern Ireland stepped up their opposition to the Anglo-Irish agreement by announcing Wednesday a civil disobedience campaign -- the first such formal action ever taken by Protestants. Unionists, who want the province to remain part of Britain, are being asked to withhold payments for public services such as garbage removal, upkeep of parks, and some forms of public welfare in order to create difficulties for government agencies, and to show their continued hostility toward the agreement.
The largely Protestant unionists are incensed by the agreement, which gives the overwhelmingly Roman Catholic Irish Republic a limited advisory role in the affairs of predominantly Protestant Northern Ireland.
Even though the Irish government's signature on the accord formally recognizes -- for the first time -- the right of Northern Ireland to exist as a legitimate part of Britain, Northern Ireland's unionists view the agreement as the first step towards Irish unity.
Since last Nov. 15, when the agreement was signed, the unionists have shown their opposition politically and in the streets. In recent weeks members of the Royal Ulster Constabulary, the province's predominantly Protestant police force, have suffered sustained attacks by Protestant mobs, and policemen and their families have been intimidated in their homes. The latest police figures reveal that since March 3, when the latest trouble flared, some 280 officers have been intimidated and 45 police families have been forced to leave their homes.
Attacks on police by Protestants compound the already serious threat posed by guerrillas of the outlawed Irish Republican Army. Yesterday, an off-duty policeman was killed by IRA gunmen.
The current Protestant civil disobedience campaign is being interpreted as a move by unionist politicians to channel protest into nonviolent action. Rev. Ian Paisley, leader of the Democratic Unionists, said, ``It is essential that people are given something like this to do, rather than allow themselves to be channeled into those ways which do not help [unionists] at the present time.''
However, Austin Currie of the mainly Catholic Social Democratic and Labour Party warned of the effects of such a campaign: ``On the positive side it is a nonviolent way of expressing protest, but on the negative side it can lead to intimidation. In particular it can give paramilitaries a further excuse to exert influence over working-class areas under the guise of patriotism.''
Behind the decision to launch the latest campaign of civil disobedience has been an active debate among unionists about what form their protest should take. The Rev. Mr. Paisley, traditionally regarded as a hard-liner, has appeared recently to be almost a moderate in comparison to other unionists.
Addressing his party's annual conference last weekend, Paisley said, ``I will not have my country destroyed or my people slain just because some hotheads say `this is the way to do it.' These are not people who will save Ulster [Northern Ireland] -- these are the people who will ruin Ulster.''
In contrast, Andy Tyrie, leader of the Protestant paramilitary Ulster Defense Association, said, ``We are fighting for our survival. There is no control now, and everyone is pitching in. We are going to keep up the pressure all the time now.''
Leading unionist politicians have noted the tone of British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher's last letter to them -- which avoided controversial assertions about the permanence of the Anglo-Irish agreement. There is a tentative suggestion by London of ``talks about talks'' and then a possible negotiating stage.
Paisley, for his part, has been trying to educate his followers about the British position and said, ``I am not going to come back with everything you want.'' However, he remains adamant about the short-term future and said yesterday, ``Until we get an acceptable framework, our campaign will be intensified.''