The Obstacle to Irish Unification

September 10, 1994|By DANIEL BERGER

It isn't the British who stand in the way of Irish unification. The majority of people of Northern Ireland, most of them Protestant, do.

The notion that the Irish Republican Army was fighting to drive the Brits out was fantasy. The Brits would love to leave.

When Republicans demand ''withdrawal,'' however, they mean

British expulsion of Northern Ireland from the United Kingdom regardless of its people's wishes. This the Brits cannot bring themselves to do.

But the Prods cannot be shot and bombed into the Irish Republic. They are too many, too wealthy, too militaristic and too mean for that.

And the Irish Republic, in its own view, is too small, too fragile and too nonbelligerent to think of trying. If there is one thing all Irish Republic political parties dread, it is unrest.

Some fantasists always wanted to make Ireland so disagreeable the Protestants would flee. The notion of the Irish nation doing to the Protestants what Serbia is doing to Bosnian Muslims is farcical. Most Northern Irish of both communities believe that any brutalities on that scale would go the other way.

The main IRA contribution has been to keep life hell for the Catholic poor and distract world attention from Protestants' intransigence.

That's why the IRA cease-fire was welcomed with joy by the BTC Catholic poor, who felt a great weight leave their backs, and with morose disbelief by paranoid loyalists, who (A) don't believe it and (B) assume they were sold out by London to get it.

The prevailing myth in the province was always that the Protestants are more lethal than the Catholics, and the history of the past 25 years is informed by that belief. IRA advocacy, however, rests on doubting it.

Fear that their loyalist bluff had been called, and lower class distrust of the Protestant establishment, created the Ulster Defense Association, Ulster Volunteer Force and Ulster Freedom Fighters -- the Protestant terrorists. This is their second generation, the first having been squashed by the British in the 1970s.

For the past two years, Protestant terrorists out-murdered the IRA. They are just as illegal, though they may have penetrated the police, which the IRA prevented itself from doing by bumping off Catholic policemen. Protestant terrorists have refrained from targeting British troops and bombing public spaces, in case anyone wonders why British troops have shown less zeal against them than against the IRA.

What is not clear is that Protestant terrorists will cease fire just because the IRA has. As IRA copycats, they are delaying a decision as the IRA did. Like their counterparts, the lads are reluctant to quit the only thing they have ever done well.

Now that politics are scheduled to resume, the loyalist or Unionist side is unready. For a quarter century, it said only ''No!'' The IRA smoke- screen let it get away with that.

With the old provincial parliament at Stormont dismantled, the only paid politicians are in the British Parliament or local office and have grown old in the job without being challenged to produce ideas.

James Molyneux, the leader of the Ulster Unionists, is 74, has been in the British parliament for 24 years and was never a real leader. All hopes rest on him.

The Rev. Ian Paisley, leader of the smaller Democratic Unionist Party, based on fundamentalist churches, is 68, an MP as long as Mr. Molyneux, and ossified.

Mr. Paisley flirted with moderation and British approval in the early '70s, briefly lost his following, and never made that mistake again. His anti-Catholicism is as sincere as it is rancid. He made up his mind in the 17th century and has never seen fit to change it.

What's called for in the next year are two parallel developments. One would be a resumption of provincial autonomy, with majority rule within the United Kingdom, modified by ''power sharing'' and the ''Irish dimension'' that Unionists always rejected.

Simultaneously there needs to be, from Dublin, outreach across national and sectarian lines for human understanding, met by an Ulster Protestant willingness to take part. Better relations for the sake of better relations -- without any prerequisite pledge for unification.

Both developments require downsizing the Irish constitutional claim to Northern Ireland to an aspiration.

If the Protestants cannot be shot into the Irish Republic, they can only be lured in.

And that can only be done by Irish people who want them as neighbors and fellow citizens.

(More on this in a future column.)

F: Daniel Berger writes editorials for The Baltimore Sun.

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