Northern Ireland's ``marching season'' -- the summer-long celebrations marking traditional Protestant victories over Roman Catholics -- has ended. But tensions remain high. Growing Protestant frustration over last November's Anglo-Irish agreement, which gives Ireland a say in the running of Northern Ireland, has taken the form of increased political action and a tougher stance on the part of a leading Protestant politician.
Harold McCusker, deputy leader of the Official Unionist Party, which wants Northern Ireland to remain a province of Britain, warned last week that unionists might have to consider an independent Northern Ireland if the British government refuses to scrap the agreement.
Mr. McCusker's remarks were immediately challenged by Eddie McGrady, of the predominantly Catholic Social Democratic and Labour Party, which favors a united Ireland by peaceful means. Any attempt to pursue independence, said Mr. McGrady, would be ``nasty, brutish, and short, and it would be drowned in a torrent of blood.''
Political observers in Northern Ireland suggest that McCusker's real purpose in talking of independence is to try to force the British government's hand by raising the specter of increased turmoil. Though he later backtracked somewhat on his remarks, his comments reveal the growing desperation felt by many in the Protestant community.
Unionist political action has taken new forms. Unionist councilors have refused to take part in Northern Ireland's elected local councils. Early last month, a group of about 150 Protestants crossed the border into the Irish Republic and attacked a police station, apparently to protest what they claim is inadequate border security. Peter Robinson, a deputy leader of the Democratic Unionist Party and a member of the British Parliament, was among those arrested in the incident. The resultant court case, which is still to be tried, has attracted widespread publicity -- much to the satisfaction of the protesters.
In a new development, protests against the agreement have spilled onto the factory floor. Traditionally, factories have been neutral territory because Northern Ireland's residents -- facing high unemployment -- are keen to keep their jobs.
Workers at a plant of aircraft manufacturer, Shorts of Belfast, stopped work for a day at the end of August because management threatened disciplinary action against Protestants who were displaying flags and slogans showing loyalty to Britain. The following compromise is likely: The loyalist workers will remove the flags in the factory provided the management flies the British flag continuously outside the plant.
To some observers, this might appear to be simply theatrics. But to the unionists, it is gravely serious. They firmly believe that the agreement threatens their identity and way of life. McCusker summarizes their fears: ``The unionists are trussed like a chicken and dressed for the Irish Republic's table.''
The intent of the Anglo-Irish agreement was to promote stability and peace. In return for its limited advisory role in the daily governing of the province, the Irish Republic recognized for the first time the legitimacy of Northern Ireland. (The Irish Constitution claims the area as part of the republic.) Proponents of the agreement hoped that Northern Ireland's Protestants would be reassured by such recognition, and that Catholics would be heartened by the active participation of the Irish Republic.
Instead, the deal has been bitterly opposed by the vast majority of Northern Ireland's 1 million Protestants. In their view, the agreement looks like the first step toward unity with Ireland.
It becomes important in unionist eyes to fly the British flag and march the streets -- to take every opportunity to resist any attempt by London and Dublin to impose measures that could lead in that direction.
During this year's marching season -- from Easter to the end of August -- there were numerous clashes between Protestants and police, who worked to prevent the marchers from entering ``flashpoint'' Catholic areas. Major injuries and loss of life were avoided, partly through a compromise which permitted Protestants to march through a single Catholic area in Portadown, 40 miles from Belfast.
In previous years, the ending of the marching season led to a drop in tension. But this year, the problems continue. Intimidation of Catholics, and of some Protestants, is widespread. Catholic civilians have been murdered by Protestant paramilitary groups. The IRA continues to kill almost at will, and their threats to murder civilians serving in, or giving supplies to, the security forces has created widespread fear.
Meanwhile, the unemployment rate remains high, hovering at 21 percent, with little prospect of any decrease.
There is likely to be an escalation of opposition to the agreement around Nov. 15, the first anniversary of the signing. The British and Irish governments had hoped that the unionists, after using much of their energy and rhetoric in the marching season, would be more amenable to discussion by autumn. The traditional marching season has ended for 1986, but the prolonged Northern Ireland deadlock carries on.