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Ulster Protestants panic at hint of unified Ireland

The depth of Northern Ireland's political impasse is seen in the way that Protestants jump with alarm at the slightest public hint that Britain might plan to link them in any way with Roman Catholic Ireland in the south.

Humphrey Atkins, Britain's secretary of state for Northern Ireland, touched off the latest flap here by talking to a US TV network.

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Everyone concerned, he said, ought to sit down and think about solutions. "Sixty years ago Britain and Ireland -- a lot of Ireland -- got separated," he went on. "I think we can reverse that. I think all of us who live in a small group of islands on the edge of Europe can . . . find a way forward without killing each other. . . ."

Harmless? Constructive? Not to Protestant leaders.

Official Unionist Party leader James Molyneaux, his colleague Harold McCusker , the Rev. Ian Paisley, and the Rev. Robert Bradford all leaped on the remark. They suggested it meant a move toward a united Ireland or "interference" from Dublin.

British officials here hastily replied that Mr. Atkins was in no way advocating a united Ireland. He was speaking only about the joint studies between Dublin and London begun in December.

Unknown so far is whether these studies might eventually effect Ulster. Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher insists "a majority" in No rthern Ireland must agree before any constitutional changes are made here.

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