THE latest joint effort of Britain and the Irish Republic to restart talks on Northern Ireland has stirred profound emotions here.
An Ulster joke hints at the deep roots of the province's bitter conflict. ``How long does it take to fly home from London to Belfast?'' asks an Englishman. ``About an hour - and 300 years,'' replies the Ulsterman. Many of the province's problems spring from religious wars of the 17th century, not just the disagreements of the largely secular 20th century. And natives are fearful that outsiders fail to understand what is at stake.
A majority of the 1.5 million Protestants who favor remaining a province of the United Kingdom tend to look on the outside world suspiciously. Even Britain, which they have relied upon for support, is seen as a potential betrayer prepared to sell out Protestant Ulster to the Roman Catholic Irish Republic.
Despite language in the Dec. 15 Anglo-Irish agreement that sought to reassure Protestants that Northern Ireland will remain British so long as a majority wishes it, they are not comforted.
It would seem that the more the British declare their support, the more the distrust grows - like a partner who becomes skeptical of a spouse who keeps repeating, ``I love you!'' again and again.
As for the Irish Republic, Protestants disdain its territorial claim over the six counties of the North, and regard the republic as a poor, insincere suitor that jealously eyes the province, but would be unable to keep his Ulster ``bride'' in her accustomed style.
And, Protestants view the United States as working closely with Dublin, bringing pressure to bear on London to back Irish unity.
Nor are Protestants happy about the influence of the European Union, which they see as a pan-European organization willing to see the border between Northern Ireland and the Irish Republic slowly eroded by a stream of European economic and other directives.
Predictably, the half million Ulster Catholics have a radically different perspective. They regard Britain as a guarantor of their civil rights, they look on the Irish Republic as their friend, and the majority back Irish unity by peaceful means. They all regard the US and the EU as powerful allies who will not allow Britain to condone any skulduggery in Northern Ireland.
Both sides are well aware of the violence and tragedy in Bosnia-Herzegovina, and they realize that only the large presence of British troops and police in Northern Ireland is preventing the same from happening here.
The suspicions and fears, however, do not wholly pervade the lives of people. Though times are bleak and the renewed violence of recent months has left them feeling beleaguered, Ulster residents are not focused simply on their own problems. While they often feel isolated from the world, they also reach out to help. In fact, they are among the most generous donors in the British Isles to developing-world charities, and Ulster-born and educated aid workers are on the front lines in several stricken lands, helping the sick and needy.
And recently, many here have come to see an important message in the massive changes that have taken place in South Africa, between Western Europe and the former Soviet bloc, and in the Middle East between Arabs and Jews.
If former enemies can sit down together at the peace table in those intransigent situations, why not here? Indeed, the accord announced Dec. 15 by British and Irish prime ministers means to do just that - to include for the first time all parties to the sectarian conflict in negotiations for a solution.
Many here fervently hope that the Ulster charity that is manifest around the world will finally begin at home politically.