A new era of cooperation between Britain and the Irish Republic, which could have a profound effect on troubled Northern Ireland, has been signaled here. This is the underlying meaning of the Dec. 8 Dublin meeting between British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher and her Irish counterpart, Charles J. Haughey --ever to be held in Dublin since the foundation of the state 60 years ago.
Both governments are trying to shape a new agreement between Britain and Ireland along the lines of the January 1963 Franco-German Treaty of Friendship hammered out by Charles de Gaulle and Konrad Adenauer. That agreement, marking the reconciliation of the French and German people, profoundly transformed the relationship between the two countries.
The proposed new Anglo-Irish agreement would also extend the area of cooperation. A committee of civil servants from London and Dublin is being assembled to flesh out the brief given them by the two prime ministers. The committee's study papers will form the agenda for another Anglo-Irish summit in London next year to be devoted to the "totality of relationships" between the two islands.
All this Anglo-Irish good will, however, is sending shivers down the backs of Protestant leaders in Northern Ireland.
The Rev. Ian Paisley and leaders of the Democratic Unionist Party in Northern Ireland quickly demanded an urgent meeting with Mrs. Thatcher. And fellow Protestants were questioning whether Mrs. Thatcher had not only let Mr. Haughey into discussions about Ulster by the back door, but had opened the front door leading to what they most fear: the reunification of Ireland.
At the heart of their anxiety is the Thatcher-Haughey agreement to put forward policies and proposals to "achieve peace, reconciliation, and stability" in Northern Ireland. Discussions between Ulster's feuding Protestant and Roman Catholic factions have failed to find a mutually acceptable political framework for the province, despite vigorous British prodding.
The Protestants, a majority in the North but a minority in the whole island, fear the British may be becoming impatient. In particular, the presence at the Dublin meeting of British Foreign Minister Lord Carrington was less than reassuring to them. They are not impressed by the way he settled the Rhodesian problem and are concerned that a Northern Ireland "solution" might be a sellout for them.
Under the proposed new Anglo-Irish agreement, as envisaged by London and Dublin, cooperation would extend to security, citizenship rights, and open the prospects for new arrangements for education and youth affairs. On Northern Ireland, in particular, there is a raft of issues of common interest. Legal anomalies, extradition of terrorists, and the framing of legislation advantageous to the people living in Ulster will be considered.
Mr. Haughey has already been given a report of how it would be possible for British citizens living in the Irish Republic to vote in elections here -- a right Irish residents in Britain already have.
As in the Scandinavian and Benelux arrangements, there is no question of Irish or British government sovereignty being compromised.But senior British and Irish civil servants are pointing out that sovereign nations can always mutually agree to limit their sovereignty in a common cause.
There had been misgivings that Mrs. Thatcher would not entertain such a wideranging review of Anglo-Irish relations. But the Dublin government is barely able to suppress its euphoria at the extent of her openmindedness.
Mr. Haughey had made it clear that, in his view, attempts at reconciling the political and cultural differences between the Catholic and Protestant communities in Ulster had failed. He said the issue now should be elevated to a new plane.
From Dublin's view the efforts Britain had made over the past two years to find a compromise that would enable a local administration to be set up in Belfast had not only failed, but the failure needed to be acknowledged by Mrs. Thatcher. Her trip to Dublin with several top ministers including Lord Carrington appears to have done just that.
British officials were concerned that the hunger strike by the Provisional wing of the illegal Irish Republican Army would overshadow efforts to promote a new understanding.
They found Mr. Haughey entirely satisfied with the approach the British government has been making to end the strike -- to find a formula within the existing prison rules whereby some of the prisoners demands can be conceded without granting them political status.