Seldom, on paper, has a British prime minister been given a stronger hand to deal with the vexing problem of Northern Ireland. Yet the political realities here suggest that Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher may have a fight on her hands making the new Anglo-Irish settlement stick.
The first real expression of Protestant wrath comes this weekend in a major Belfast rally against the agreement. The Anglo-Irish accord, signed Nov. 15, has so far won Mrs. Thatcher the goodwill and support of the international community, including the Irish government. She also has the massive backing of the British Parliament, which is certain to approve the legally binding treaty next week.
Unionists, standard bearers of Protestant sentiment in Northern Ireland who favor continued ties with Britain, have been effectively isolated. This is partly because the British are impatient with continuing problems in Northern Ireland and partly because the language used by Unionist members of Parliament has not helped their cause.
Yet for all Thatcher's skills as a debater, politician, and tactician, there is no guarantee that a settlement designed to bring about reconciliation in Northern Ireland will work. Thatcher may take some solace from the ruling of a London high court judge. He turned down a written application from leading Protestant Unionists to challenge the agreement. It was not, he ruled, an appropriate matter for judicial review.
One analyst believes that, with the fulcrum of power shifting away from the Protestant majority to an Anglo-Irish condominium, the province could be moving ``from a period of relative stability to real instability.'' Northern Ireland watchers say a settlement can only work if it has strong community support, and it's not there yet.