The territory of both, citizens of either

July 22, 1996|By William Pfaff

PARIS -- The most desperate words I have ever read about Northern Ireland were written a few days ago by an eminent British commentator, Neal Ascherson of London's The Independent.

''It is the last resort, but perhaps the only hope,'' he wrote. ''When the first American patrol moves up the Lower Falls, and when the Stars and Stripes flutter above the guardposts . . . at Derry, then the madness can slowly begin to drain off the land.''

They are also the most futile words ever written about Northern Ireland. There is not the faintest chance that Americans will ever patrol the streets of Northern Ireland. Mr. Ascherson greatly overestimates the interest of mainstream America in Northern Ireland's affairs. Massachusetts may be interested, which causes election-year Washington to be interested. Michigan and Mississippi do not care. If Mississippi did care, it would care about the Protestant cause in Ulster.

New oppressors

Even if Washington seriously cared, a U.S. intervention would make things worse. It would imply that Northern Ireland had passed from Britain, the Roman Catholic minority's traditional oppressor, to an American government which Ireland's Protestant minority believes is the ally of its majority Catholic enemy. The arrival of American troops in Northern Ireland would relaunch Orange terrorism.

I shift the terms minority/ majority because Protestants are a minority in all of Ireland, which the Catholic Nationalists want reunited, while Catholics are the minority in the Protestant-dominated North. Both function from the paranoia of minority-hood.

The peace effort of the past 10 years began when Margaret Thatcher's government acknowledged that the Republic had a legitimate interest in Northern Irish events. It undoubtedly ended July 12, with the British government's surrender to the Orange orders' demand once again to drum and fife their way through Catholic areas, to celebrate the Protestants' defeat of the Catholic James II in 1690, and to demonstrate to the Catholics that Protestants still are the top dogs in Northern Ireland.

The collapse is evidence again that no power-sharing solution is possible. The initiatives of the last two years -- London-Dublin negotiations, the IRA and Loyalist cease-fire, American mediation with Gerry Adams at the White House, ex-Senator George Mitchell's mission, the ''Framework Document,'' the provocatively unnecessary election to decide who would do the talking -- all merely produced an IRA decision to start bombing again. The IRA needs war because it wants victory over the Protestants. The Protestants won't -- can't -- yield.

Weary of the Orange

The appeal for international intervention expresses mainstream Britain's weariness with Orangemen and IRA and their ancient and incurable hatred. There are Conservatives who would wash their hands of Ulster. A part of the Labor Party wants Britain to withdraw from Ireland, and Labor seems likely to form the next British government.

Withdrawal would bring civil war and Dublin's military intervention, or such is the argument made by that irascible southern Irish wise man, Conor Cruise O'Brien -- who ran as a Unionist in the May elections to decide who was going to do the peace negotiating. The government of the Republic understands that Ireland's reunion would mean Protestant insurrection in Ulster.

Pleas that somehow those on both sides who want peace be lTC brought together to fight the war party are admirable but unconvincing. It is true that the demographic balance in Northern Ireland is changing in favor of the Catholics (in 1991 42 percent of the population, as against 54 percent Protestants). Whether that can ever produce an electoral solution satisfactory to both camps (all camps, to include the war party), must be doubted. Not in the near future.

There is one different proposal that has been put on the table in the public debate, which has not been taken up by the politicians. Instead of the futile effort to divide power between the communities, this plan would attempt to bypass the problem of power.

The Vanuatu precedent

It is the condominium or shared-sovereignty solution. It has functioned satisfactorily in the past, in places divided by colonial history, or by dynastic or ethnic claims, most recently in the New Hebrides islands, now the Republic of Vanuatu, which between 1887 and 1980 were under joint Anglo-French sovereignty.

The condominium solution for Northern Ireland would make it legally part of both nations, permit its citizens to chose either Irish or British nationality, to vote in the national elections of that country, carry its passport, attend its universities and move freely throughout Britain, Ireland and Northern Ireland.

Local affairs in Northern Ireland would be governed by local assemblies. Law would be enforced by two systems of courts, British and Irish, each with jurisdiction over those who had claimed its nationality, and guarantor of the rights of those persons. There could be parallel school systems, or a united Ulster system (unlikely), or all three at once.

Defense and external affairs would be provided jointly by London and Dublin. The new Northern Ireland would be the territory of both, its citizens the citizens of one or the other nation. That is the beauty of the solution. It would be hard to negotiate, obviously. But it would at least be something new to negotiate about. There is little -- probably nothing -- left in the old negotiations.

William Pfaff is a syndicated columnist.

Pub Date: 7/22/96

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