THE IRISH-BRITISH accord announced Friday is the result of high-level, painstaking and difficult negotiation over Northern Ireland. The bloodshed in Ulster, the current phase of which began in 1969, has exhausted all sides: the British people, most of whom are tired of paying the financial, emotional and casualty costs of supporting an army in the province; the people of the Irish Republic who want unification but know that continued violence in the north prevents it; and, of course the people of Northern Ireland, Protestant and Catholic, who yearn for an end to the shootings and the bombings that have caused more than 2,500 deaths in the six counties.
The agreement does not change the status of Northern Ireland as a part of the United Kingdom. It does, however, create a permanent Anglo-Irish Intergovernmental Conference with representatives from Britain and the Irish Republic, which will serve as a forum to deal with political, legal and security matters and encourage cross-border cooperation. Initial meetings will concentrate on relations between the armed forces and the minority community and on strengthening public confidence in the administration of justice. Eventually, the conference will consider the long-range political future of the province, though both governments agree that there will be no reunification of Ireland without majority consent in the north. The forum will have no actual governing power and does not supersede the government in place. But as a first step toward settlement of the very questions that have engendered what amounts to an insurrection, it is more than a symbol.
Hard liners on both sides in Ulster will complain. Intransigent Protestants will object to any role for the Republican government, and Catholic extremists want nothing less than full reunification. But parliaments in Westminster and Dublin are expected to give quick approval, and both governments are pledged to be steadfast against internal resistance.
Ironically, the framers of the pact are especially concerned about the reaction to the agreement here, for without strong American support for this peaceful step, they fear, money and arms will continue to be funneled from this country to the most violent factions in Ulster. It is difficult to understand why any American would prefer to finance the continuation of armed conflict when an important step toward peace is a reality. Strong statements supporting the agreement have already come from President Reagan, Speaker O'Neill and scores of congressional friends of Ireland. They should reassure these longtime and close allies that the Americans applaud their step toward peace.