Will a Clinton Visit Unsettle N. Ireland?

He may push 'yes' vote in May 22 referendums. Some Protestants call it foreign interference.

The message to President Clinton from hard-line Northern Ireland Protestants is: Stay at home, and let us decide our own destiny.

But if the May 22 referendums on the peace agreement in the province and Ireland are to be won, and peace secured, a heavy White House shove may yet be needed.

Mr. Clinton has already played a pivotal role in the pursuit of peace.

A series of phone calls by the president to party leaders helped clinch the Belfast agreement in the critical final negotiating stage. After last Friday's agreement, he offered to travel to Northern Ireland "if it would help." A successful Clinton visit to the province two years ago helped to kick-start the peace process.

But the situation today is different and shows signs of great fluidity. Opinion polls immediately after the agreement showed 73 percent in favor in Northern Ireland, 60 percent in Ireland, and 81 percent on the British mainland. But there are deep disagreements among influential Protestant power-brokers.

At a news conference yesterday, David Trimble, leader of the moderate pro-British Ulster Unionist Party (UUP), called on his supporters to back the peace plan, saying, "It is the best deal that is available, warts and all. There isn't a better one available, and there isn't a realistic alternative."

But a formidable coalition of opponents is already building. On Wednesday the Rev. Ian Paisley, firebrand leader of the radical Democratic Unionist Party (DUP), launched a "no" campaign and promised to hold rallies throughout Northern Ireland. Dr. Paisley calls the peace pact "the mother of all treachery" and insists a Clinton visit would be "interference."

After the 1973 Sunningdale Agreement on Northern Ireland between London and Dublin, Paisley played a leading part in fomenting the province-wide Protestant workers' strike that forced its collapse. Since then, Northern Ireland has endured 25 more years of sectarian violence and murder.

Attitudes among Irish Republican Army activists and rank-and-file supporters of Sinn Fein, the IRA's political wing, remain unclear.

Sinn Fein President Gerry Adams will be meeting with his party's executive body over the weekend. Sinn Fein sources say Mr. Adams hopes to persuade the party it should remain in step with public opinion and not let a gap open up between voters and political leaders.

Such a gap may already have begun to appear within Protestant ranks.

On Wednesday, the Grand Lodge of the Orange Order, the largest Protestant fraternal order, voted 3-to-1 to call for "clarification" of key aspects of the peace pact, but stopped short of outright rejection.

Parts of the agreement that most disturb Protestants concern the early release of paramilitary prisoners from both sides of the sectarian divide, and the failure to specify a deadline for handing in terrorist weapons.

On Tuesday the Dublin government, in an apparent bid to boost support for the deal within the IRA and Sinn Fein, ordered the immediate release of nine republican prisoners.

This weekend Mr. Trimble faces what may be one of his toughest tasks, when members of the UUP's grass-roots national council meet to debate the peace plan.

It's acceptance would enable Trimble to outflank party critics and enhance the chances of a decisive "yes" vote on May 22. But if he fails to get council support, Trimble will be handicapped in his resistance to the Paisley strategy of all-out rejection of the peace deal.

At that point the entry of President Clinton, with his undoubted skills as a campaigner, could be a critical factor in the referendum campaigns.

In Belfast, British government sources said yesterday that Clinton was unlikely to decide about a Northern Ireland visit until after the UUP national council and Sinn Fein's political executive body had a chance to respond to the peace plan.

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