Breaking the Ice in Northern Ireland

December 05, 1993|By RICHARD O'MARA


As the ice age of international politics known in modern history as the Cold War continues its thaw, the most resounding cracks have been heard from those regions of the deepest political rigidity: Germany, Russia, the Middle East, South Africa.

So in this climate it was not unreasonable to anticipate a loud snap from Northern Ireland, a frigid conjuncture of near-perpetual conflict, venerable animosities and lovingly cultivated hatreds.

Quite possibly it was audible last week, with the admission by the British government's Northern Ireland secretary, Sir Patrick Mayhew, that London had maintained contacts with the Irish Republican Army "for some years" -- this despite its repeated avowals it would never deal with such men of violence as these.

The campaign by Irish nationalists to expel the British from the island of Ireland is one of the oldest continuous struggles of its kind. It extends back to the failed campaigns of the 18th century by Wolfe Tone, through the Fenian and Irish Republican Brotherhood movements of the mid-1900s.

The current phase has gone past two decades and has killed about 3,000 people. Its aim is to drive the British from the last six counties of the north they still control, where the majority of Unionist Protestants (950,000) are determined to maintain the province's ties to Britain against the desire of many of the nationalist Roman Catholics (650,000) for union with the Republic of Ireland.

There are those who think this warfare will rage into and possibly through the next century.

Despite the encouraging news from Ireland and Britain recently, it is not yet certain that expectation is misplaced.

For the moment, there is talk of peace, a hint of a melting at the hard center.

The first signs of movement emerged last spring when the two principal Catholic party leaders in Northern Ireland, John Hume of the Social Democratic and Labor Party, and Gerry Adams of Sinn Fein, the above-ground political arm of the Irish Republican Army, ended their five-year estrangement. They let it be known they had a peace plan. The details were not revealed.

Then came Sir Patrick's surprising admission of the contacts with the IRA -- not just for months, but "for some years."

Despite its antiquity, the IRA may be one of the most inept national liberation movements ever assembled. Its volunteers occupy a closed world of conspiracy, violence and terror; they give it and they receive it. Their lives tend to be short. They are often undereducated rustics with a tendency to get their wires crossed, setting off bombs at the wrong time or shooting the wrong people.

But they are not all like that. Evidence of their skills at the delivery of payloads is found everywhere throughout Northern Ireland. A monument to it rises in the center of Britain's financial district, the NatWest Tower, one of London's tallest buildings. In April it was eviscerated by a gigantic IRA fertilizer bomb.

What they may lack in tactical skills they make up for in discipline and in the comfort that the long view delivers. As J. Boyer Bell, a scholar on the IRA and author of "The Secret Army," put it, they are driven by "the will to persist to await the inevitable collapse of their opponent's will, to wait and not to lose and so win."

Sir Patrick's revelations so infuriated the Protestant Unionist leader, the Rev. Ian Paisley, that he accused the government of dealing in lies, and for this he was ejected for five days from the House of Commons at Westminster.

It is hard to believe that Mr. Paisley, an astute and informed

politician despite the impression he gives of a Bible-thumping fanatic with a penchant for turning purple with rage now and then, did not know all this was going on. A lot of others did -- or suspected it.

The British government's public refusals to talk with the IRA, or even with Sinn Fein, is but one of several dubious propositions it has cultivated with regard to Northern Ireland.

Two others are Britain's assertion that the six counties of Ulster it controls are an integral, inalienable part of the United Kingdom and the frequently repeated assurances that Britain will not be separated from Ireland by force.

Still another is the blood-bath scenario.

It was Margaret Thatcher who declared that Northern Ireland is ++ as much a part of Britain as Finchley, her old constituency in north London. Yet she was the one who in 1985 signed the Anglo-Irish Accord that gave the Republic of Ireland, another country, a say in the administration of the six counties, a privilege Dublin certainly doesn't enjoy in Finchley.

And as to the second affirmation that Britain will stay the course no matter how tough it gets, one can only observe that the world is dotted with Britain's former colonies, many of which she did not leave peacefully. We all live in one.

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