- The Washington Times - Friday, March 15, 2002

Uncertainty in Ulster
Northern Ireland appears calm, at least from this side of the ocean. The economy is good, and leaders of the British province were in Washington this week to celebrate St. Patrick's Day.
However, appearances are deceptive. The first minister of Northern Ireland warned yesterday that the landmark peace agreement reached in 1998 could unravel because the Protestant majority, which supports the current union with Britain, fears the accord may lead to union with the Republic of Ireland, which has a huge Catholic majority.
"We must demonstrate that is not going to happen," said David Trimble, who is also leader of the Ulster Unionist Party.
Mr. Trimble has proposed a voter referendum on a united Ireland, convinced that a sizable portion of Catholic residents want to remain part of Britain. Northern Ireland, also known as the province of Ulster, has a population that is about 58 percent Protestant and 42 percent Catholic, while Ireland is 93 percent Catholic.
Irish Prime Minister Bertie Ahern, who was also in the United States this week to mark St. Patrick's Day, warned that such a referendum could threaten the peace process.
"I would share the concern of many observers that holding such a poll prematurely could serve to polarize the situation," Mr. Ahern said Monday in a speech at Northwestern University in Chicago.
Mr. Ahern was in Washington on Wednesday to meet President Bush.
Mr. Trimble, in a breakfast meeting with U.S. supporters, said Protestants also believe they have given up a lot to appease Catholic demands but have gotten little in return.
Increasing Protestant suspicions, Sinn Fein, the political ally of the outlawed Irish Republican Army, has been calling the so-called Good Friday agreement the first step toward a united Ireland.
Protestants are also skeptical about the disarmament of the IRA, as mandated by the accords that also guaranteed civil rights for Catholics and created a Northern Ireland Assembly.
The IRA turned in one cache of weapons last year, but there has been no public disclosure of the amount and types of arms surrendered. Mr. Trimble said he suspects the IRA is still engaged in gunrunning and guerrilla activities.
Meanwhile, Mr. Trimble's party is being hammered by Protestant extremists of Ian Paisley's Democratic Unionist Party in the campaign for elections to be held next year.
Mr. Trimble and other Northern Ireland leaders met yesterday with Secretary of State Colin L. Powell.

'Huge way to go'
Britain's chief administrator for Ulster yesterday expressed optimism that the current tension in the province will soon ease.
"This is the longest-running problem in British history and probably the longest-running problem in European history," said John Reid, the secretary of state for Northern Ireland.
"We have come a long way, but there must be no complacency, no illusions. We have a huge, huge way to go, as well," he said, speaking at a St. Patrick's Day lunch at the British ambassador's residence.
He said that "ordinary people feel there is a vacuum in the middle of the peace process."
Mr. Reid said he is "eternally grateful" to Americans for their continued interest in Northern Ireland, especially after the "terrible horrors" of September 11.

Washington honeymoon
Not all was fret and fear at the British ambassador's lunch, though. It was, after all, held to celebrate St. Patrick's Day.
Ambassador Sir Christopher Meyer displayed his trademark diplomatic humor by teasing the Northern Ireland secretary of state, who got married last week.
John Reid and his bride, Catrine, could have gone to the south of France, a tropical island of "even Scotland" but chose, instead, to spend their honeymoon in Washington with a large delegation of politicians from Northern Ireland, Mr. Meyer said. Mr. Reid is Scottish.
"They chose the only place to be this week in Washington and in this embassy," he said.
Mr. Reid looked over the guests, who included members of the British Parliament and the Northern Ireland Assembly.
"In my wildest dreams, I never thought such an auspicious group," he said, "would accompany me on my honeymoon."


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