It was a scene unprecedented even in the bizarre context of Northern Ireland, where words like “loyalists” seem to mean whatever the speaker chooses them to mean. But the mobbing by “loyalists” of Her Majesty’s secretary of state for Northern Ireland, James Prior, at last week’s funeral of a murdered Unionist MP seemed to sketch a sinister new dimension into Britain’s baffled dealings with its troubled relative across the Irish Sea.
Ulster’s inflammatory preacher-politician Ian Paisley, who earlier had stormed out of the House of Commons after branding Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher “a traitor and a liar,” scorned concern over the affair as “a little bit of etiquette.” With thinly veiled satisfaction, he warned that the mob scenes at Dundonald Presbyterian Church in East Belfast were “a storm signal—we’re over the edge.” Later he issued a direct challenge to the British government over the worsening security situation. His supporters, he said, will make the province “ungovernable” unless Unionists are assured of a mas-
sive blitz against the IRA. With his typical touch for melodrama, Paisley threatened to mobilize a “third force” of vigilantes. “We either remedy the situation or we die in the attempt,” he declared. Unimpressed by a further 600 British troops flown in last week, he backed up his threat with newspaper advertisements blazoning a call for ac-
tion—“for God and Ulster.”
At week’s end the province seemed poised on the edge of chaos. Like Edward Carson* before him, Paisley has claimed that 50,000 men are ready to follow him to the death to defend Protestant rights. But even if the force never marches out of the shadows, industrial disruption seemed certain. Paisley’s call for a general strike this week was backed immediately by workers at the province’s biggest power station. And displays of nonco-operation between local officials and British ministers at Stormont Castle threatened to escalate into a tax strike. Surprisingly, the Ulster Defence Association, the chief Protestant paramilitary group, declined to support the “day of action.” But that seemed to reflect only a tactical disagreement.
There is no doubt that Protestant fury is at flash point. It has been building up for weeks, with a fuse clearly traceable to the abortive ending of the IRA hunger strike in Belfast’s Maze prison in October. Ten strikers died over
*Carson, an Irish politician, raised an armed force in 1912 and successfully opposed Westminster’s efforts to impose home rule on Ulster.
seven months, starting with Bobby Sands, the elected MP for FermanaghSouth Tyrone. When a second poll in that heavily republican enclave returned the dead man’s election agent to Westminster, the result was widely viewed by Unionists as Catholic support for IRA violence.
Sectarian hostility hardened when the IRA, angered by the failure of the hunger strike to achieve political status for Maze prisoners, switched to picking off part-time members of the security forces and bombing targets in London. The murder of Robert Bradford, a hardline Unionist, was the first killing of an Ulster MP in the province’s 12 years of violence. But the Royal Ulster Constabulary says it may signal more assassinations of public figures.
At the same time, the Unionists see little likelihood of help from London in their demands for tougher action. In September, a cabinet reshuffle sent a reluctant James Prior from the employment ministry to Stormont Castle. A born negotiator and conciliator, Prior could have been an inspired choice had his posting not been so obviously a punishment for his opposition to Thatcher’s economic policy. As it is, Ulster hardliners see him as soft and his appeals for calm last week were greeted as an “insult”—even by James Molyneaux, the quiet-spoken leader of the official Unionist party.
The final blow was the Anglo-Irish summit at 10 Downing Street between Thatcher and Ireland’s Prime Minister Garret FitzGerald. The meeting culminated in a decision to set up an “intergovernmental council” to promote ministerial and official contact between the two countries. Unionist extremists im-
mediately smelled a sellout. When Thatcher stated in the Commons that the move involved “no change whatever” in constitutional arrangements, Paisley and two colleagues leaped to their feet in a carefully concerted, noisy protest.
It all had dispiriting echoes of another Tory government’s attempts to solve the Ulster problem eight years ago with the so-called “Sunningdale Agreement.” That accord also proposed an intergovernmental body for Ireland, but of a different kind. The 1973 “Council of Ireland” planned to bring ministers from the North and South together to share administrative power. It was Ian Paisley who killed that initiative by calling for the “Protestant workers’ strike” of early 1974, a massive display of hostility to power-sharing.
This time, Northern Ireland office officials in London are confident that no rerun of the 1974 strike will affect progress of London’s cautious but growing co-operation with Dublin. Ulster itself is not involved, they say. Yet this is precisely why the extremists are angry and prepared to take independent action. The danger is, as moderate MP Gerry Fitt points out, that they have no definable target—such as the power-sharing executive—so their only outlet is “open rebellion.”
What form this will take is anyone’s guess. But if it gets out of hand, it could have the result of finally wearying the British of their most disloyal loyalists and lead to a clear, decisive break in relations. That would be the consummation the IRA has desired all along. As a Times editorial said last week, Ian Paisley risks becoming “Irish nationalism’s best recruiting sergeant.” O’
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