AFTER three years in operation, it is clear that the Anglo-Irish agreement, negotiated between the Irish Republic and Britain to promote peace and stability in Northern Ireland, is changing the political environment there. Before the agreement, four attitudes contended for dominance in the North: Unionism stood for ``a Protestant government for a Protestant people,'' and Northern nationalism rallied to the cry ``Gaelic and free.'' The British government viewed Northern Ireland as part of the United Kingdom, beyond any legitimate interest of the Irish Republic, while the Dublin government claimed the North as part of its national territory. Essentially, each attitude assumed that the North is a political entity made in its own image. But the agreement has invalidated such assumptions and in doing so probably goes to the heart of the political problem in Northern Ireland.
Consider the unionists, who, after resisting the agreement, are now slowly beginning to consider it, if only to suggest alternatives. When Peter Robinson, deputy leader of the Democratic Unionist Party, acknowledges that unionists have to accept that there is no going back to anything resembling the situation before the agreement, he reflects a political realism visible in a growing number of unionists. As one moderate nationalist sees it, ``Unionists are now thinking on their political feet for the first time.''
On the radical nationalist side, Sinn Fein, the political wing of the Irish Republican Army, has finally acknowledged the legitimacy of the distinctive political claims of the northern unionists. And while it remains unconvinced that Britain has, under the agreement, adopted a neutral position toward Northern Ireland, it is open to persuasion on this point. Knowledgeable observers of Sinn Fein consider that significant.
Effective though the agreement is in redefining some of the terms of the political debate in Northern Ireland, it remains only a political instrument. Consequently, a critical question hangs over the future of the agreement. Will there be enough political leadership on all sides to use it effectively to end what Irish Premier Charles Haughey describes as ``a failed political entity'' and achieve the kind of government to which all in Northern Ireland can consent?
To her credit, British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher has rejected every unionist plea to abandon the agreement. But her preoccupation with cross-border security issues has meant limiting unduly its use to a battle against terrorism. Her ministers only recently have made proposals on fair employment and education, suggesting that Mrs. Thatcher finds the larger agenda of the agreement less appealing. The British approach, however, is not uniform. Some, like Sir Geoffrey Howe, the British foreign secretary, have much more sympathy for the political rationale of the agreement as a whole.
In contrast, Mr. Haughey, as leader of the Irish opposition in 1985, declined to support it, fearing that it would only confirm the partition of Ireland. Since becoming premier again in 1987, however, he has used it to advance a broad agenda, including fair employment, housing, and education. Clearly, he is now convinced that relegating to secondary consideration the fundamental conflict of civil rights endemic in the North is a mistake. The irony is that his consistent support for the agreement since 1987 has guaranteed its survival and prompted Mr. James Molyneaux, leader of the Official Unionist Party, of all people, to consider talks with the Dublin government.
The agreement included provision for a joint review of the Intergovernmental Conference, the ministerial council responsible for the working of the agreement, after three years. After intense debate, both governments agreed to ``a thorough and serious review'' in which all political parties on the island could participate. Significantly, the Irish government fought hard for and won agreement to evaluate the effectiveness of the accord itself from Articles 2 to 10, and consider changing the entire scope and content of some of them.
This confirms the agreement as an integral part of the North's political landscape, but clearly favors the broad agenda of the Irish government over the limited one preferred by some British ministers. Equally important, it is recognition on their part that the more tentative that Dublin and London are about the agreement, the less compelled that unionists and radical nationalists may feel to become involved in building a real representative democracy in Northern Ireland.