BELFAST, Northern Ireland — Britain and the Irish Republic have become entangled in a potentially damaging dispute about judicial reform in Northern Ireland that has complicated relations between the two countries and cast a cloud over their two-year-old agreement to reduce religious strife in the troubled province.
The differences, which center on the composition of Northern Ireland's courts, constitute the first public display of tension between the two countries since the Anglo-Irish agreement was signed two years ago next month.
Ireland's leaders believe Britain has failed to follow through on a pledge to expand the Northern Ireland judiciary, possibly including judges from Ireland. Britain maintains there was no such commitment.
With the levels of intimidation in the province too high to permit jury trials, the composition of the judiciary takes on a special significance, especially for Roman Catholics, a minority in Northern Ireland, who have traditionally mistrusted authority.
After meeting with Irish officials here last Wednesday, Britain's secretary of state for Northern Ireland, Tom King, warned that the differences could have what he called "very serious implications for relationships between our two countries."
The accord gave the predominantly Catholic Irish Republic a formal consultative role in the British-ruled province for the first time in hopes of developing reforms that would give Catholics a stake in the political process of Northern Ireland, also called Ulster.
Leaders of the Protestant majority, concerned that the Irish role may be the first step toward a united, Catholic Ireland, have strenuously opposed the agreement.
Nearly 2,600 Deaths
Nearly two decades of sectarian strife--the latest round in 400 years of such conflict--have claimed nearly 2,600 lives and made normal life impossible.
The depth of differences on the issue of judicial reform surfaced last month at a private meeting of senior figures from Britain and Ireland.
At the meeting, former Prime Minister Garret FitzGerald, who negotiated the agreement for Ireland, accused Britain of breaking a commitment to expand Ulster's non-jury, one-judge courts to three judges, possibly including some from the Irish Republic.
The commitment, he claimed, was linked to Irish ratification of the European Convention on the Suppression of Terrorism. Ireland has an extradition treaty with Britain, but the European convention would go beyond it and provide for the extradition of members of the outlawed Irish Republican Army living in the republic and accused of terrorist offenses in Northern Ireland.
British officials insisted that no such commitment was made, and while FitzGerald has not repeated his remarks publicly, the incident focused Irish discontent on the pace of judicial reform in Northern Ireland.
The text of the agreement commits both governments to "consider . . . the possibility of mixed courts . . . for the trial of certain offenses."
"The courts is one of a number of issues in the area of the administration of justice where we'd like to see improvement," said Irish Foreign Ministry spokesman Dick O'Brien.
Prime Minister Charles Haughey, under pressure both from within his own party and from parliamentary opponents, may insist that Britain announce some reforms as the price for ratifying the convention on terrorism.
Questions of Confidence
In a recent speech, Haughey avoided a direct confrontation on the matter but raised a question as to whether any government could extradite a citizen to a country that has a legal system about which there are questions of confidence.
Ireland has already postponed ratification of the convention for a year, primarily to give Britain time to move on judicial reform. Ratification is scheduled to come into effect automatically unless the Irish Parliament votes by Dec. 1 to postpone it again.
Several Irish politicians have threatened to propose another postponement, and many observers believe that such a proposal would almost certainly be approved. If so, according to British officials, it could seriously weaken the Anglo-Irish accord and damage Anglo-Irish relations as well.
Ironically, the problems over judicial reform come at a time when a series of potential threats to the agreement had just passed.
Change of Mind
There was concern last March when Haughey, an outspoken critic of the accord, was elected prime minister of Ireland, but he quickly changed his mind and endorsed it.
Then there were fears that the June election in Britain might give Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher so slim a majority in Parliament that the 13 members from Northern Ireland might be able to wring concessions from London that would weaken the accord. But Thatcher won a landslide victory.