Year after Anglo-Irish pact, Protestant opposition still runs high. N. Irish Protestants adamant on having continued British rule
Ballymena, Northern Ireland — The sense of shock and hurt that the Protestants of Northern Ireland felt at having the Anglo-Irish agreement imposed on them a year ago has not eased. In villages and towns throughout Northern Ireland, where Union Jacks fly proudly in front of city halls and where Protestant-dominated town councils have suspended all meetings in protest over the Nov. 15, 1985, agreement, frustration runs deep.
The Protestants of Ulster, as this British province is known, oppose the deal, which they feel was made behind their backs. They see it is a move away from Britain and view the limited, consultative role in Ulster affairs - which the accord grants the Republic of Ireland - as a foot in the door to Dublin's eventual rule here.
You couldn't find a town more Protestant than Ballymena (population 42,000). Once a thriving linen center, it now depends principally on the Gallagher tobacco factory and a Michelin tire factory. Here, Protestants outnumber Catholics 9 to 1 (a little less than the province-wide 3:1), and its constituents are represented in Parliament by the Rev. Ian Paisley, the thundering voice of Protestant conservatism.
While the town residents are reconciled to the fact that Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher won't back down on the accord, they are just as adamant that they will not lessen their opposition to it. The effect across Ulster is an agreement that remains intact one year later but is not seen as having been able to deliver one major reform.
Says Murray Darragh, a civil servant waiting in line in Ballymena's modern Tower Centre shopping arcade, ``Both governments have made a commitment to it, and they've got a tiger by the tail they can't let go.''
Mr. Darragh feels that if Britain or Ireland retreated on the agreement ``there would be too much egg on the governments' faces. But I think they didn't quite realize how strongly it [the agreement] would be opposed.''
It is in middle-class towns like Ballymena, not the grim working-class districts of Belfast that are breeding grounds for paramilitary violence, that Mrs. Thatcher's government faces its biggest public-relations hurdle. Hopes that moderate opinion would swing behind the agreement have not materialized.
One persistent criticism is that, rather than bringing Protestants and Catholics closer together, the agreement has pushed them further apart.
One Protestant teen-ager, John McFettage, when asked what he thought about the agreement, said: ``I think it's caused a lot of bitterness. What do you think, Joe?'' he says turning to a friend. Joe Dunlop, a Roman Catholic replied: ``Aye, it's caused a lot of bitterness.''
When it is pointed out to them that it did not appear to stop the two of them from being friends, John chimes in, ``Ah yes, but you see this is Ballymena. This is a sensible place. If we were in Belfast we'd probably be shot.''
Another objection to the accord is that it has not curbed terrorism. Both the Irish and British governments insist cross-border security has improved. There is much more collaboration and exchange of information between the governments and their police departments.
But the violence has persisted. Worrying the authorities now is the recent threat by Protestant extremists to set off bombs in Dublin if the accord is not called off.
Says one woman here, ``I think the agreement has caused a lot of trouble. For one thing, a policeman has just been killed.... It happened as he was getting into his car, and he had small children too.'' Derek Patterson was the 12th policeman to be killed by alleged Irish Republican Army terrorists this year.
According to Maurice O'Neill, editor of the local weekly newspaper, the Ballymena Guardian, ``The agreement hasn't done anything it was set out to do. It hasn't brought an increase in peace. No way.''
Mr. O'Neill says the mood of law-abiding Protestants is one of hopelessness. ``I'm as opposed to the agreement as anyone, but I can't lend myself to petrol bombing policemen's homes and putting innocent Catholics out of their homes.''
In an article in the London Times, the distinguished Irishman Conor Cruise O'Brien - former politician and diplomat, now journalist and author - argues that the effect of the agreement ``has been to make alienation the general condition, while intensifying the mutual hostility of the two communities and sources of violence.''
But Paul Arthur of the University of Ulster at Jordonstown remains as committed to the agreement now as he was at the signing 12 months ago.
``One of the most essential points of the agreement is for the first time ever, ever,'' he says repeating for emphasis, ``the Loyalists [Protestant politicians] have not had a guarantor in London.'' This is an allusion to the veto power Unionists have always exercised over political reforms in the province.
In more practical terms, Mr. Arthur ticked off some of the gains under the agreement:
Some $50 million from the United States, with the promise of more international aid if the accord succeeds.
Improving communications, such as building the cross-border road between Newry and Dundalk.
Destroying the notorious crime-ridden Divis Flats of Belfast.
Promising Irish voters who have moved north that they can vote in local elections.
The likely phasing out of ``supergrass'' trials. The trials convicting alleged IRA terrorists on the evidence of testimony by ``supergrasses'' (informers) have been highly controversial and largely fallen into disrepute.
Establishing an Anglo-Irish Secretariat at Maryfield in Belfast. This has served as a useful mechanism for communication between the two governments, and Arthur believes quickly facilitated a solution to a political hunger strike soon after the Anglo-Irish agreement.
``I remain a firm optimist,'' Arthur says. But he warns that if the agreement is not going to work, ``we're going to be heading to an absolute disaster. We'll be heading for another Lebanon.''