Problems Beyond the Reach of Goodwill

WILLIAM PFAFF

February 24, 1992|By WILLIAM PFAFF

London. -- If hope had not been dashed so often before, one might think this a hopeful moment in the long grief of Anglo-Irish ++ relations. There is a new Irish prime minister as well as a new president. There is a changed government in London. The violence in Northern Ireland is the worst in years and must be addressed. The killing, by British soldiers, of four more IRA men last week, who were attacking a police station, has provoked new trouble between young republican sympathizers and the police in Belfast.

The new Irish prime minister, Albert Reynolds, comes to London Wednesday for a hastily rescheduled meeting with Britain's John Major, citing the ''changed situation'' in the north. But is there anything really to talk about?

Mr. Reynold's election in place of Charles Haughey -- who was once involved in an IRA gun-running scandal -- means that power in Dublin is now out of the hands of the republican generation. He and Mary Robinson, the liberal-minded new president, have spent their lives in an Irish Republic at peace with itself.

Ireland's constitutional provisions calling for return of the six counties have become an embarrassment as well as an obstacle to peace. All the important parties except the governing Fianna Fail have already advocated change in the constitution to reassure Unionist fears about southern expansionism. So has the Roman Catholic cardinal primate of Ireland. There is also growing criticism in the south of the quasi-official position of the Catholic Church, another cause of Unionist hostility toward the Republic. Mrs. Robinson was well known for her support for causes opposed by the church when she was elected.

Mr. Reynolds is from a non-ideological business background, interested in Ireland's economic progress, and has never taken a public position on Northern Ireland. His new foreign minister, David Andrews, is interested in civil liberties and good Anglo-Irish relations. The Independent newspaper's Ireland correspondent, David McKittrick, describes the Fianna Fail's view of the north today as like that of the public as a whole -- ''one of aversion, weariness and often a sense of hopelessness.''

But is there anything to hope for? The Anglo-Irish agreement signed by Charles Haughey and Margaret Thatcher provided for regular meetings and what might be described as a consultative oversight role for the Irish government in Britain's conduct of Northern Irish affairs. It was hoped that this would undermine the influence of the Provisional IRA among Catholics in the north. But it infuriated the Ulster Unionists, who see in it a first step toward British withdrawal. And IRA violence has lately intensified.

Good will is not enough to produce a solution when passions between communities have been so deeply engaged for so long. Catholics and Protestants in the north have been in a struggle with one another since the Protestant colonists were first brought from Scotland in the 17th century. The Protestants' tribal celebration each year is of the Battle of the Boyne in 1690, when the Dutch Protestant ''King Billy'' -- William III -- defeated the Catholic James II and his French allies and confirmed Protestant and parliamentary rule in Britain.

The theoretical options today include unification, which the IRA wants and the Ulster Unionists would fight. This would undoubtedly put the Dublin government in the same position as Britain's today, the tables turned -- trying to suppress a Unionist uprising instead of an IRA one.

xTC The second option is full integration of Northern Ireland into Britain, which the Unionists want but the IRA would obviously fight. Independence for Northern Ireland? Even if that were economically feasible, both sides would see it as a step toward unification and would fight on with renewed enthusiasm.

British troop withdrawal? As that risks relaunching the popular unrest and disorder that brought in the troops two decades ago, and at worst could mean civil war, it does not seem a promising course. However, the argument is made that it would deal a salutary shock to Unionists and nationalists alike, who currently can fight one another in confidence that the British army will keep things from getting so totally out of hand as to jeopardize the civil order.

What's left? Compromise and conciliation? That's what the Anglo-Irish agreement was supposed to promote, and it is what Mr. Reynolds and Prime Minister John Major will be talking about this week. Better luck to them than their predecessors enjoyed. The final possibility, I suppose, is exhaustion -- that the majority // on both sides in the north eventually become so sick of all this that they themselves suppress the terrorists. But it doesn't take many terrorists to make a war, and for three centuries it's never been hard in Ireland to find a few good men for the Cause.

William Pfaff is a syndicated columnist.

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