BELFAST, NORTHERN IRELAND — Summer is always troubled in Ulster, with Protestant marchers parading past Catholic churches and homes, but the next three months could be the most critical in the 65-year history of Britain's offshore province.
Protestant political leaders have broken off all negotiations with the British government. The Northern Ireland Assembly, the last local forum, may be abolished after four years of failure. Politics could return to the streets amid increasing fears that police will be unable or unwilling to exert control.
Protestant outrage grows from the Anglo-Irish Agreement, introduced by the British and Irish governments in November to provide a new framework for settlement of the centuries-old problem. It was to bring "peace, stability and reconciliation" to Ulster but polarization between Protestant and Catholic communities is growing.
Before the agreement, the 40% Catholic minority complained about alienation from the government, but now there is even greater resentment among the Protestants who held control until London took over direct rule in 1972.
The Protestants, ironically known as loyalists, have turned against British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher for giving the Irish government a say in the day-to-day running of Ulster. The agreement calls for a consultative role, but the wording is so vague--governments must make "determined efforts"--that it can be read as joint authority.
This is anathema to Protestants who see the republic as a reason for much of the Irish Republican Army violence, a major cause of 2,500 deaths over the past 17 years. Protestant leaders say they will never accept the agreement.
Through March and April there were almost nightly attacks on the homes of policemen. More than 300 families suffered in raids aimed at intimidating policemen who may be ordered to curb Protestant parades; 60 people had to flee their homes.
At the same time, mobs turned new attention to their traditional enemies in the Catholic community, damaging many homes and churches. The campaign was called off in response to pleas from local politicians, but not before a Protestant woman recently married to a Catholic was shot and killed in bed.
So far, politicians have distanced themselves from the intimidation, claiming it undermines efforts to change Thatcher's mind. But as the marching season approaches--there will be 1,800 parades between June and September--Protestant politicians step up their opposition. In defiance of a court ruling, they have led a boycott of 18 of the 26 local government councils, bringing them to a standstill. Now the Assembly is only used as a propaganda platform and the government has threatened to suspend it.
The Protestant's trump card was a mini-election in January, when all 15 Unionist MPs resigned from Westminster; then 14 of them were reelected by 73% majorities. Thatcher's only response was to offer them participation in the Anglo-Irish meetings. They refused, saying, "The only input we want to the agreement is the gelignite to blow it apart." Such reaction has had a disastrous affect on British public opinion--a recent Gallup poll showed only 26% want Ulster to stay in the United Kingdom.
The leaders of the two Unionist parties, the Rev. Ian Paisley (Democratic Unionist) and James Molyneaux (Official Unionist) are engaged in a dangerous balancing act, trying to persuade followers that they are exerting enough pressure, while warning Thatcher about the dangers of confronting the majority.
Even when Thatcher agreed to reopen talks, the Unionists escalated their opposition; they now recommend non-payment of local taxes and a boycott of goods from the Irish Republic.
Politicians still hope to persuade the British government to back down by nonviolent means but the extremist groups believe that Thatcher will only respond to strong-arm methods.
Through its organization of Protestant work forces at several big Belfast factories, the 1986 Workers Committee turned what the politicians intended to be a peaceful one-day March strike into a day of intimidation and riot.
The workers group has close ties to the two Protestant paramilitary organizations--the Ulster Defense Assn. and the Ulster Volunteer Forces--and a relationship with some politicians through the Ulster Coordinating Committee. A significant new element is the Ulster Clubs network, founded by a lay preacher whose policeman father was killed by republicans. Much of the rioting in Belfast has followed Ulster Clubs rallies.
The political leaders aim to replace the hated accord with a plan for devolved government, including a role for Catholic nationalists. But the powerful extremists resist any power-sharing. Paramilitary leaders back an independent Ulster, although they do not explain how they will deal with 600,000 Catholics, or replace the $2.25-billion subsidy from Britain.