The ``Belfast says No!'' sign that for two years assaulted passersby with its message in front of Belfast's city hall has come down. But those who oppose the Anglo-Irish agreement - which gives the Republic of Ireland a say for the first time in Britain's administration of Northern Ireland - remain adamant. They refuse to enter into discussions with other parties in the Northern Ireland conflict until the agreement is either suspended or abandoned.
``We are not going to get ourselves into the ridiculous situation in which the Dublin government, which was not elected by anyone in Northern Ireland, has the right to oversee administration of this province,'' said Nigel Dodds, spokesman for the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP).
The political party is one of two here with a strong following among Protestant loyalists favoring Northern Ireland's union with Britain. It has waged the ``Ulster says No!'' campaign opposing the agreement in towns across the province.
Some observers say the agreement was born of desperation after the outlawed Irish Republican Army (IRA) shocked the British government by bombing a meeting of the ruling Conservative Party at Brighton in 1984. The 1985 agreement that followed was designed to ease the tension between London and Dublin over British policies in Northern Ireland, and to assure Roman Catholics in the province that their grievances were being heard.
The agreement acknowledges the rights of ``two major traditions'' in Northern Ireland: the Protestant majority and the Roman Catholic minority. It repeats Britain's stated commitment to peaceful and constitutional means for governing the territory. To assure the Protestant community there would be no ``sellout'' by Britain, it affirms that any changes in the status of the region must come about with the consent of the majority.
The functional part of the agreement sets up an intergovernmental conference for regular consultations without conceding British responsibility for governing the province. Topics for discussion include security and political affairs, the administration of justice, fair employment practices, and the economic development of deprived areas.
For those opposed to Dublin's ``interference'' in the affairs of Northern Ireland, the pact offers an incentive. In those areas where parties on both sides of the conflict can agree to work together, Dublin will not be consulted.
Observers say officials in Dublin and London who supported the agreement did so for different reasons. After the Brighton bombing, Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher and her Cabinet were primarily concerned with tightening the net around the IRA and preventing weapons and IRA members from crossing the Irish border. While also concerned about security affairs, then Irish Prime Minister Garret Fitzgerald wanted to influence British economic and social policies in Northern Ireland and help the Catholic minority north of the border.
A senior Irish diplomat in London pointed recently to three areas of progress under the accord: improved cross-border security cooperation, the reversal of electoral support for Sinn Fein (the IRA's political arm), and increased confidence in the police, the Royal Ulster Constabulary. He observed that the government of Prime Minister Charles Haughey came to power last year with reservations about the agreement, but that it was now supporting it.
The agreement has not, however, impressed those it most needs to convince: the hard-line Protestant Unionists who were reluctant or unwilling to share power before and now refuse to hold discussions until the agreement is set aside.
``What were the purposes of the agreement?,'' asked Mr. Dodds of Rev. Ian Paisley's DUP.
``To bring peace, order and stability,'' Mr. Paisley responded. ``But today there are more walls, more violence, more killings than two or three years ago. By every criteria you chose, the Anglo-Irish agreement has failed to achieve its objectives and there is more of a political vacuum in the province than before.''
Sinn Fein also has been quick to call the agreement a failure. ``We feel that the agreement could never deliver on the promises it made, that it was a cynical exercise by the British,'' said Sinn Fein spokesman Richard McCauley.
Mr. McCauley pointed to continued housing problems for Catholics, job discrimination, and the meager sums dispersed by the international fund set up under the agreement to aid impoverished areas on both sides of the Irish border.
The agreement is scheduled for review at the end of this year. Officials in London and Dublin appear satisfied with its present terms and so far neither government is expected to propose major changes.