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Britain's professed neutrality fuels climate of mistrust

ULSTER Protestants have always had a siege mentality, springing partly from the sense that they were in an unfriendly land and partly from an ingrained lack of confidence in British politicians.

The suspicion of Britain increased in the late Sixties and early Seventies as Westminster and Whitehall moved from a pro-Unionist stance to lay emphasis on the rights of the Catholic minority.

It reached new heights in 1985 when Britain and the Republic of Ireland signed the Anglo-Irish agreement, forging a new London-Dublin relationship but excluding, and appalling, the Unionists. The accord strengthened Unionist fears that Britain saw no long-term future for itself in Ireland.

Seven years after the signing of the agreement, that uncertainty is still there. One political leader said bluntly: 'All of politics in Northern Ireland is centred around British intentions.' The gap between Britain and the Unionists is still evident, and many of the latter feel it is growing wider.

A senior Protestant clergyman summarised the views of many when he said: 'I detect a growing feeling that the British government would like out. We feel that probably we are an embarrassment to them. If they could get out decently, with pride and world respect, they would do it.' A prominent banker put it this way: 'The IRA, the SDLP, the Irish government, Kevin McNamara and the British Labour Party - they're all working for Irish unity. Where's the balance? Who's on our side? Nobody. People get annoyed when the British keep saying they're neutral, even-handed.'

The Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, Sir Patrick Mayhew, may be instinctively pro-union, but he has failed to soothe Unionist fears. The atmosphere of mistrust is such that when Sir Patrick made an unexceptionable speech clearly aimed at detaching any waverers from the fringes of Sinn Fein, he attracted a torrent of Unionist criticism for allegedly wooing the IRA.

Last year's political talks had the unforeseen by-product of increasing the mistrust. Many Protestants had hoped that the British team would somehow align itself with the Unionists, and were disappointed when this did not happen. Britain's professed neutrality was viewed by Unionists as worrying.

According to a Presbyterian minister: 'There's a general air of frustration and disappointment with the British government and this business of it acting as an honest broker and taking nobody's part.'

Another source of frustration was the nationalist approach to the talks. Some Unionists had the unrealistic expectation that by making decidedly modest offers on Catholic participation in a new administration, they could have Articles 2 and 3 removed from the Irish constitution and dismantle the Anglo-Irish agreement.

As one of the nationalist negotiators put it: 'They wanted to get rid of Dublin influence and put nationalists back into their old box. The contest in the talks was essentially about whether the nationalists would occupy the place that Unionists want to give them: the answer was no. The realisation of that bleak reality has certainly been unsettling for Unionists.'

(Photograph omitted)