A Chance for Ireland

March 04, 1995

Both parts of Ireland have changed profoundly since the last )) serious attempt by Britain to revive provincial self-government in Northern Ireland collapsed two decades ago. That is the reason for measured optimism about the "Framework for Agreement" negotiated by the British and Irish governments over the past 14 months.

Ireland may be ready.

The Ulster Unionists, the long-dominant party of the Protestant majority in the North, reacted with customary knee-jerk negativism. Yet without their engagement this plan cannot fly. When their constituents have digested the plan, Unionists may find they would rather help shape these institutions than shoot down the effort.

The "framework" is an agenda for all-party negotiations that have not yet been called, leading to referendums North and South. It is important that extremist political parties participate, but not clear they will be invited while the IRA and Loyalist paramilitaries are still caching weapons and intimidating their own communities.

The plan calls for a Northern Ireland Assembly with majority rule and minority protections. The greatest innovation would be a North-South body created jointly by the sovereign Irish Parliament and provincial Northern Ireland Assembly to handle functions such as environment and development. Amending the Irish Republic's constitution, to abolish the claim to jurisdiction over Northern Ireland unless its people wish, is required along with British legislation affirming the possibility of such jurisdiction with the assent of majorities.

Since 1974, the Catholic share of Northern Ireland's population has risen from one-third to two-fifths. The Catholic Church in the Irish Republic has evolved to a post-Vatican Council II liberality, which is appreciated by most Protestant churches and has led to vigorous ecumenical dialogue in the North. Separate schools have achieved common curricula of history and ecumenical understanding, and more children attend integrated schools. The Catholic professional classes have grown enormously, although unemployment of Catholics remains double that of Protestants.

All this, punctuated by the IRA and Loyalist paramilitary cease-fires of last autumn, make the framework worth a try. It attempts to bring reconciliation between the two communities of Northern Ireland, the two parts of Ireland and the two main British Isles.

Great subtlety went into this language, and much interpretive energy must be expended to distinguish between an institution and a structure, a slash and a hyphen. But it is well worth pursuing by the people of Ireland. Success would bring a better life for all. Failure to try could never be explained to their grandchildren.

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