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Historic meeting in Belfast gives Irish Republic first say in rule of Northern Ireland

At today's meeting here of the new Anglo-Irish Conference, Irish ministers will be consulted for the first time on rule of Northern Ireland. The conference was established by last month's accord between Ireland and Britain and provides a structure in which the Irish Republic is given a voice in the affairs of Northern Ireland.

The meeting will take place against a background of hostility from Northern Ireland Protestants who charge that the agreement foreshadows unification of Northern Ireland with the Irish Republic.

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These Protestants, called Unionists because they favor continued union with Britain, have threatened to protest with acts of civil disobediance.

Irish Foreign Minister Peter Barry will meet the Northern Ireland Secretary, Tom King. They are expected to discuss: the relationship of the police -- the Royal Ulster Constabulary (RUC) -- with the public; the question of police accompanying regular patrols of the Ulster Defense Regiment (UDR), a Protestant paramilitary group; and antiterrorist operations across the border.

Many Roman Catholics mistrust the part-time UDR, members of which have been convicted of serious crimes against Catholics. Many Catholics also mistrust the RUC, despite its reputation for upholding the law in face of violent opposition from Protestants.

If the Anglo-Irish Conference decides to recommend any changes in the role of the police or UDR in Ulster, Protestants will see it as direct interference from Dublin and further proof to them that the Anglo-Irish agreement is the first step toward unification.

The task facing the Belfast conference has not been made any easier by a political gaffe Tom King made in Brussels last week. He said that following the Anglo-Irish agreement the Irish prime minister had accepted that ``for all practical purposes . . . there will never be a united Ireland because he has accepted . . . that the will of the majority in Northern Ireland, must predominate.'' Garret FitzGerald, the Irish premier retorted swiftly that King's remarks had been ``inappropriate and inaccurate.'' King apologized in the House of Commons the next day while Unionist members of Parliament hooted at his discomfiture.

But the incident pointed to the cracks within the agreement, chiefly because it is interpreted with subtle but important differences in London and Dublin. King, therefore, will have to work hard in Belfast to regain the confidence of the Irish foreign minister and his advisers.

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