Anglo-Irish agreement hits two-year mark. Accord keeps sides talking, but hasn't built bridge authors envisioned
Belfast — The second anniversary of the signing of the Anglo-Irish accord this Sunday will not be particularly joyful for its backers. Most analysts agree that while there has been much rhetoric in the past two years, real progress has been limited.
The accord allows the Irish Republic a consultative voice on a broad range of policy matters in the six counties of Northern Ireland, whose status as part of Britain would change only with the consent of its people. But the future of the agreement is unknown. There is no sign that the British and Irish governments will dismantle it, despite deep differences over some issues like extradition.
Equally, there is no sign that the Ulster (Northern Ireland) Unionist parties and a large portion of the Protestants have lessened their opposition. They are not prepared to talk with Roman Catholic leaders unless the accord is renegotiated or set aside. The recent bombing in Enniskillen which killed 12 people and injured more than 60 others has increased divisions. One observer said ``the Anglo-Irish agreement is buried under the rubble in Enniskillen.''
Observers agree, however, that this may be too harsh a judgment. The accord is not dead, but it does need an infusion of goodwill to make it what it was meant to be: a bridge between Catholics and Protestants, and a buffer against terrorism.
Protestant leaders of Northern Ireland and their supporters opposed the agreement from the start. Extremists took to the streets and there was sporadic but vicious rioting in which Protestants attacked the royal Ulster police they had long supported. At the same time, political leaders launched a campaign aimed at making the British abandon or renegotiate the agreement. Leading members of Parliament and councillors refused to take part in national and local government, and to even talk to British officials.
Unionist politicians, who represent the 1 million Protestants in Northern Ireland, still favor their link with Britain and oppose the accord which they see as a step to an all-Ireland republic.
Leaders of the Social Democratic and Labour Party, who represent Northern Ireland's half-million Catholics, still aim for long-term Irish unity by peaceful means. They continue to support the agreement as a way of safeguarding the minority's rights in Northern Ireland. But they regard progress as terribly slow.
The Irish Republic government of Charles Haughey also supports the agreement. But the working relationship with Britain has been strained by a current row over extradition. Under the new extradition law, scheduled to go into effect Dec. 1, it would be easier for people suspected of terrorist crimes in the north to be extradited from the south to face trial.
British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher insists on keeping the accord, even though Protestant and Catholic leaders in Northern Ireland remain far apart.
British and Irish officials point out that the agreement provides an important forum, the Anglo-Irish conference, where both sides meet regularly to consider issues of mutual importance and concern. And at a lower level there is the framework for continued cooperation on such matters as cross-border security - an area that still has considerable problems.
Backers of the accord note some successes. Garret Fitzgerald, the former Irish premier who signed the agreement two years ago, recently listed some of its achievements. He noted, the end of trials in the north, in which criminals gave evidence against former colleagues in return for favorable treatment; greater Catholic representation on public bodies in the north; improved housing in Catholic ghettos, improved court and prison procedures; and, among Catholics, more confidence in the Royal Ulster Constabulary.