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Anglo-Irish accord: symbol of division

THE Anglo-Irish accord was signed by the British and Irish governments three years ago this week. It was an attempt to improve understanding between Northern Ireland's 1 million Protestants and its half million Roman Catholics. The accord was also supposed to help the two governments mount a more unified attack on terrorism. But three years on, the terrorism shows no signs of decreasing, and the gulf between Protestants and Catholics in Northern Ireland remains as wide as ever.

The workings of the agreement, though not its actual terms, are due to be reviewed this month. This review would appear to be an examination of how the Anglo-Irish vehicle is working rather than an assessment of the need for a completely new vehicle to do the job.

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The accord could be likened to a well-meaning set of rules drawn up by distraught in-laws whose children have failed to make a happy marriage and instead carry their violent row back to the family living rooms. The children refuse to live together in peace, and the in-laws wring their hands as the row rages on.

Most Protestants here continue to favor the link with Britain, while many of their Catholic neighbors favor a united Ireland. Most Protestants have looked on the Anglo-Irish accord as a first step toward Irish unity. This was partly because they fear the fact that the accord gave Dublin a limited advisory role in the day-to-day affairs of Northern Ireland.

There are as many analyses of the accord as there are analysts. But some broadbrush observations can be made.

On the positive side, the agreement has provided a vehicle for better communication between London and Dublin, though not necessarily between London and Belfast, or even Belfast and Dublin. During the past three years both governments have had to face up to deeply divisive issues. On notable occasions, they have also had to learn to agree to differ.

The Dublin government, for example, has shown great disquiet about the alleged ``shoot-to-kill'' policy of certain sections of the British security forces in past years. Dublin has also worried about guilty verdicts brought against Irishmen in important British court cases. More recently, Dublin has shown its disapproval of the manner in which a squad from the British Special Air Service gunned down three members of the outlawed Irish Republican Army (IRA) who were on a bombing mission in Gibraltar.

Despite all such difficulties, London and Dublin have used the machinery of the agreement to keep in touch and to substitute megaphone politics with more measured diplomatic language. The agreement has undoubtedly increased cross-border cooperation on security. (The lack of a significant decrease in terrorist activity can be explained by the fact that the IRA has stepped up its campaign of violence in a determined effort to smash the agreement. At times it appears as if both governments have to run faster to stand still on the security front.)

Perhaps the real failure of the agreement so far is the inability of both governments to persuade unionist Protestants that they have nothing to fear. The sense of Protestant alienation has not diminished, despite the best efforts of Britain's secretary of state for Northern Ireland, Tom King, to persuade their political representatives to take part in talks. The unionists will not enter into talks with Catholic representatives until the accord is abolished or at least suspended. Despite government assurances on security, constant IRA attacks on Protestants - be they members of the security forces or civilian casualties of IRA bomb-blasts - do not make them feel more secure.

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The Anglo-Irish accord is perhaps the most significant document since the 1949 Ireland Act. Passed by a Labour government in Britain, the 1949 act stipulated that Northern Ireland, which was then semi-autonomous and had its own Parliament, would remain part of the United Kingdom so long as the Parliament wished this to be so. The 1985 agreement carried this somewhat further and declared that Northern Ireland would remain part of Britain as long as a majority of the Northern Irish people decided to maintain the link with Britain. (The Northern Irish Parliament, known as Stormont, was prorogued in 1972, so it seemed only sensible to transfer the veto on Irish unity from a Parliament to the people.)

The great irony is that the agreement itself has become part of the problem. To the unionists, the accord is merely a cloak for a British government sell-out to Irish unity. To the Catholics, it is a continuing guarantee of their protection within Northern Ireland. The tragedy is that not enough people can see it as a means to an end rather than an end in itself. That end is neither Irish unity nor a total integration of Northern Ireland with the rest of Britain, but rather a Northern Ireland (and an Ireland) of peace and prosperity.

Three years on, the agreement stands as a symbol of division, rather than a healing force in society. Both governments continue to support the agreement resolutely because no one yet can produce anything better.

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