Protestant politicians in Northern Ireland have announced a dramatic change in their ``Ulster says no'' policy. They have asked for meaningful talks with the British government to try to find an end to almost two decades of political upheaval and violence. This request came just as the annual ``marching season'' began here Sunday, commemorating 17th century Protestant victories over Roman Catholics. Daily incidents of march-related violence have occured this week.
For the past 18 months the ``unionists,'' who represent most of Ulster's (Northern Ireland's) 1 million Protestants and who favor retaining their ties to Britain, have boycotted the Westminster Parliament and have refused to talk to government ministers.
Their fury has been directed at the Anglo-Irish accord, signed in November 1985 between the British and Irish prime ministers. This complex agreement gave the Dublin government a limited advisory role in the day-to-day affairs of Northern Ireland. In return, the Irish Republic's government gave official recognition to the existence of Northern Ireland, even though the Irish Constitution still claims jurisdiction over the whole island of Ireland.
The agreement was supposed to help unite Roman Catholics and Protestants throughout Ireland in their opposition to terrorism, but in the past 18 months there has been no significant decrease in terrorist activity.
The Ulster Protestants argued that the agreement was the first step towards a united Irish republic. They opposed it bitterly by holding a series of street protests, by withdrawing from government bodies and district councils, and by refusing to work with government ministers, including Tom King, Britain's secretary of state for Northern Ireland. The unionists were hoping that they might hold the balance of power in Westminster after the June election, and thereby force the government to water down the agreement, but Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher's party was returned with a substantial majority.
Now the unionists have produced what is seen as an important blueprint, titled ``An End to Drift.'' This was prepared by a task force involving the Official Unionist Party's deputy leader Harold McCusker, and Chief Executive Frank Millar, as well as Peter Robinson, deputy leader of the Rev. Ian Paisley's Democratic Unionists. The report was endorsed by Dr. Paisley and by James Molyneaux, leader of the Official Unionists. Thus approved, the document was launched publicly on July 2 to general approval from Ulster politicians and the British government.
The report argues forcefully that ``protest can be no substitute for politics'' and its authors admit ``times move on and circumstances change.''
The unionists are calling for talks ``without prejudice'' with government representatives to pave the way for discussions which could lead to power-sharing between Protestant politicians and representatives of the province's half-million Catholics, who are outnumbered by Protestants 2 to 1 in Northern Ireland.
The authors of the report are careful not to spell out the kind of framework they envisage, and prefer to leave this to the negotiation stage. But it is clear that they are anxious to come to terms with Catholic leaders provided this can be done through devolved government in a Northern Ireland which would retian the link with the rest of Britain.
Catholic leaders have been initially low-key in their public comments, but the biggest hurdle they face is trying to tailor any new discussions to include the Catholics' insistence, so far, on a continued link with Dublin.
If they stick on this point, observers say it will likely lead to the alienation of the unionists once again.
The situation is delicately poised, and the unionists hint strongly that if the British government is not prepared to meet their wishes in helping to create an alternative to the Anglo-Irish accord, they might consider the establishment of an independent Northern Ireland.
But all of this is a long way down the road. In the meantime ,the task force's report is a serious attempt to break the current political logjam. If it proves successful, many here feel this new unionist initiative could prove to be the most important political development in Ireland since the Anglo-Irish agreement itself.