The Irish Question Continues to Confound British Politics


London. -- The question of Ireland has poisoned British politics for hundreds of years. It still does; today more than yesterday; this year, with a general election due, more than last.

This week marks the 20th anniversary of Bloody Sunday. On January 30, 1972, British soldiers in Londonderry opened fire on Catholic civil rights marchers. They killed 13 of them, and thus began the current phase of what are euphemistically referred to as "the troubles."

The Irish Question, the relationship between the Irish Republic, Great Britain and Ulster (the six counties which make up Northern Ireland and which remain British), appears immutable. But there are no permanencies. What seemed more certain only a few years ago than the solidity of the communist world? What seemed more eternal only 70 years ago than that empire upon which the sun never set?

Ireland, then, should be viewed within a larger context of historical possibility.

Every time an IRA bomb explodes in mainland Britain or in Northern Ireland, British government officials, from the prime minister on down, reiterate that the terrorists will never bomb Britain out of Northern Ireland. Britain will stand fast. British opposition politicians use identical language.

The words are uttered with conviction, iron certainty. This is the preferred human quality not only of British politicians, but of the British people themselves: resoluteness.

In fact resoluteness, the determination not to be moved, is preferred in this country over all other human characteristics, even, some say, creative intelligence and imagination. Resoluteness. Determination.

An Irishman of republican sympathies encountered in Belfast several years ago, not an active fighter against the British forces, said he believed Britain would eventually withdraw from Ireland.

"Despite their talk they have always withdrawn," he said. And he reminded me of the Commonwealth. It has 50 member states, 48 of which used to be colonies of Great Britain. Many were territories which Britain vowed never to leave. But they did.

The British always kept a list of reasons why they would never leave Northern Ireland. The province, they said, was an integral part of the United Kingdom. To Margaret Thatcher, Ulster was as British as Finchley, her London constituency.

Strategic reasons were advanced. In the confrontation with the Soviet Union it was vital to hold Northern Ireland because the Republic of Ireland, being a neutral nation, could not be trusted. Hadn't they made overtures to the Germans in World War I? Hadn't they been neutral in World War II?

Then there was, and remains, the argument of democracy. A majority of the population of Northern Ireland want to remain a part of the United Kingdom. The majority had to be obeyed.

Finally, there was the blood bath scenario, according to which the withdrawal of British troops would precipitate an immediate civil war in the province between Catholic republicans and Protestant loyalists.

To describe the endless animosity between these two groups, the British introduced the word "tribal," which did less to describe what animated the two sides than it did to insult them as political primitives.

Also, emphasis on the inter-religious fighting tended to obscure the true line of conflict, which ran between the British forces within Northern Ireland and those trying to expel them. That's where most of the killing occurred. That's where most of the fire was.

Which is not to say Catholics do not kill Protestants because they are Protestants and vice versa. They do. It is only to say that interpreting the conflict solely along those lines misses its main dynamic.

Despite the seeming immobility of the problem, the circumstances of it have changed much over the past decade, and continue to. The Anglo-Irish Agreement, signed in 1985, which acknowledged the Republic's right to be consulted on Britain's internal policies in the province, was the most important change. It adulterated the equation of Northern Ireland with Finchley. Certainly Mrs. Thatcher was not prepared to listen to Irish advice on what to do in her London neighborhood.

The agreement was an admission by the most resolute of British prime ministers since Winston Churchill that there was at least a question about Northern Ireland's legitimacy. The Unionist politicians who speak for the Protestant majority certainly saw it that way. They have resisted it with fury.

A huge banner floats from the dome of Belfast's city hall. It reads: Belfast Says No. Belfast and its Unionists have been saying no since 1985, and people here are weary of it.

But they may have to hear it at least once more. The Irish question again is fouling the political game in Britain, and should the upcoming general election not yield a clear winner, the Unionist members of parliament may have an ace to play: a deal to support a Conservative government in exchange for the death of the Anglo-Irish Agreement.

The strategic justification for Britain's remaining in Northern Ireland vanished even before the Soviet Union did, which leaves the argument of democratic choice and the blood bath scenario.

There is no doubt that should the people of Northern Ireland be allowed to vote on the question a majority would opt to remain part of Britain rather than to go into the Irish Republic. But there are those who argue that, since both the Republic and the people in the rest of Great Britain are affected by what happens in Northern Ireland, democracy might be better served if the constituency were widened.

Britain spends about $3.5 billion a year to keep a 17,000 man force in Northern Ireland fighting the IRA. That is a lot to a country in deep recession, as Britain is. Ireland, one of the poorest countries in Europe, supports the campaign against the IRA, though it has a constitutional claim to the six counties.

An all-Ireland vote would certainly result in the reintegration of the Ulster counties, set apart in 1921 at the founding of the Irish Free State. It is also more than likely that a vote on the question in all of the U.K. would yield the same result. At least the polls indicate repeatedly that most of the British people favor a withdrawal from Northern Ireland.

Finally there is the blood bath scenario. Would the two communities go to war the moment the British troops departed? It is a dicey question. Most politicians are not eager to risk it, especially Catholics, since the Protestants control the 6,000 full- and part-time troops in the Ulster Defense Regiment and the 8,000 in the Royal Ulster Constabulary.

John Hume, the head of the largely-Catholic Social Democratic and Labor Party, and possibly the most flexible and creative politician in Northern Ireland, believes the blood bath scenario could eventuate. "In such a situation what could stand against them [Protestant troops]?" he asked. "A couple hundred IRA gunmen?"

The idea of a controlled or slow withdrawal to give the Protestant majority time to accept it has recently been floated. The British historian Paul Johnson was quoted on this subject this week by a London newspaper, The Times, as follows:

"In Ireland over the centuries we have tried every possible formula. Direct rule, indirect rule, genocide, apartheid, puppet parliaments, real parliaments, martial law, civil law, colonisation, land reform and partition. Nothing has worked. The only solution we have not tried is absolute and unconditional withdrawal."

He wrote that 20 years ago. It remains the only untried policy left.

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