In a move that sent tremors through Northern Ireland's political establishment, the deputy leader of the Rev. Ian Paisley's Democratic Unionist Party resigned Oct. 7. The resignation of Peter Robinson respresents the third such defection in recent weeks. Last month, Frank Millar, chief executive of the Official Unionists resigned to take up a television job in London. Shortly afterwards, John Cushnahan, leader of the moderate Allianace Party announced that he was stepping down because he could not earn a living as a moderate politician.
The resignations of these ambitious young men, known here as the ``Young Turks,'' appear to expose a generation gap between them and old guard Protestant leaders such as the Rev. Mr. Paisley. The defections also raise serious doubts about the possibility of any break in the political deadlock here.
Earlier this year, a special report by a task force of ``Young Turks'' from the unionist community, which wants to keep the link with Britain, urged Protestant leaders to resume talks with the London government after the apparent failure of an 18-month ``Ulster says no'' campaign - a campaign marked by efforts to spearhead strikes, civil disobedience, and street violence.
Paisley's response to the report was lukewarm. Although Mr. Robinson was tight-lipped about his resignation, he is thought to be disenchanted with Paisley's attitude to the report, which recommends that the unionists abandon the ``Ulster says no'' campaign.
This began in November 1985, when the British and Irish governments signed the Anglo-Irish agreement, which gave Dublin a limited advisory role in Northern Ireland's affairs. In return, the Irish Republic undertook to recognize, for the first time, the legitimacy of Northern Ireland. The unionists saw the pact as a first step towards Irish unity, and opposed it bitterly.
The unionist's task force report was published earlier this year after much political soul-searching by its authors, who included Robinson and Millar.
``Time moves on,'' the task force wrote, ``and circumstances change.'' The report was widely praised for its pragmatism.
Though the report did not recommend specifically a form of power-sharing between unionist politicians and Ulster Roman Catholic and Irish nationalist leaders, this would have been the logical outcome of any serious attempt to bring devolved government to Northern Ireland. The British have long insisted on such a prerequisite.
The report's authors indicated that any ultimate breakdown in talks with the British could be extremely serious. The unionists want the Anglo-Irish accord set aside as a condition for talks, but the Dublin government, a cosignatory, strongly opposes this.
But the task force report warned that if the unionists failed to make significant headway, this could lead to a search for a solution outside the union - in other words an independent Northern Ireland. So far this has not been taken seriously outside unionist circles.