When Ireland Will Come Together

November 05, 1994|By DANIEL BERGER

After covering the start of the present troubles of Northern Ireland in some depth years ago, I came to the conclusion that Northern Ireland would become part of the Irish Republic after:

1. Drastic population change to a Catholic majority in the province.

2. A strengthening of European institutions, with Ireland and Britain jointly losing sovereignty.

3. Improvement of the Irish economy and welfare system to equal Britain's.

4. A great secularization within the Irish Republic, the last truly Catholic country left.

5. Generational change to end the inferiority complex in many Irish people toward the English, and Irish Catholics toward Protestants.

The big news of the last quarter-century is that all of these developments have, in part, occurred. The catch is that none is complete.

1. Northern Ireland was for decades reckoned as two-thirds Protestant. Census figures in 1992 showed Protestants at 42.8 percent and Catholics at 38.4 percent.

This makes others (Jews, Muslims, Hindus etc.) 18.8 percent, which no one believes. Some don't-knows and atheists are Protestant, some Catholic. A consensus developed to call the ratio 60-40. It may be closer.

Like black people in Baltimore, a high percentage of Catholic people in Northern Ireland are too young to vote. The electorate is more Protestant than the population.

2. The single-market arrangements of the European Union in 1993 have made the Irish and British closer to one economy and one nation, despite hiccups in the Maastricht Treaty for monetary union.

3. Shortly after Ireland went into the Common Market in the 1970s, investment poured into the countryside as never before, and welfare improved. Many Irish predicted overtaking the British. This did not happen and even reversed.

The single market of the European Union has brought a new flood of foreign plant investment in the Irish Republic. Catch-up may be again thinkable.

The superiority of the British welfare safety net will keep many Catholic votes for remaining in the United Kingdom. This is universally recognized if never mentioned.

4. The secularization of the Irish Republic is measurable and date-able. A referendum elevating the existing illegality of abortion to a constitutional ''right to life of the unborn,'' was passed by two-to-one in referendum in 1983.

In 1986, a referendum to remove the constitutional ban on divorce was defeated by nearly as much. That vote was clearly about whether to make the Republic acceptable to Northern Protestants and the answer was no.

In 1990, the same electorate made Mary Robinson, a campaigner for women's rights and against theocracy, president of the Republic. She was the first choice of 39 percent and squeaked through when votes for the third-place finisher were redistributed. She symbolizes a country in which Protestants can be comfortable.

Yet two years later, a referendum to loosen the abortion prohibition was defeated. Ireland is not yet as secular as most of Western Europe, and will not be unified before it is.

One of the chief unstated motivations on the part of non-church-goers for retaining Catholic Church influence in law is to remain inhospitable to Northern Protestants. The 1937 constitution of the Republic was crafted to be as offensive to them as possible while pretending to jurisdiction over them.

5. The inferiority complex, in which an Irishman would refer to any Englishman as ''Milord,'' is giving way to a confidence in which an Irishman thinks an English firm is something an Irishman takes over.

This is wholly impressionistic on my part, based on many conversations. In 1980, I thought the new outlook began with people who were 30. Today, those people are 44.

An older generation, earnest about Irish culture and national identity, was temperamentally incapable of unifying the country. newer generation, confident and indifferent, will bring it about.

Northern Ireland will go into the Irish Republic when the difference hardly matters. Trans-national institutions devised to protect the rights of Northern Irish Catholics today will then protect those of British Ulster Protestants.

If the overtures now being bruited can bring about real reconciliation efforts, the unification of Ireland can begin, and perhaps be accomplished in another quarter-century.

F: Daniel Berger writes editorials for The Baltimore Sun.

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