The Ancient Strife of Irish and English


London.--Britain's Irish problem was given still another demonstration by the mighty IRA bombing in the city of London, Europe's most important financial center, April 24. The size of that blast was a significant economic blow to Britain, where the government now has pledged to indemnify insurance companies against terrorist losses.

Yet there is evidence that the Irish conflict moves with terrible slowness, but with certainty, toward its conclusion. The reasons are less political than demographic and social. The Northern Ireland counties of Protestant majority, committed to perpetual union with Britain itself, hostile to any rapprochement with the predominantly Roman Catholic Irish Republic, find themselves inexorably changing in population and religious makeup. The Unionist cause increasingly is one of the past. At the same time, in the south, the Irish Republic's political and religious attitudes increasingly are becoming those which could reconcile a new generation of Ulster Protestants.

The Irish Republic has the youngest population in the European Community -- and much younger than in the United States. More than 14 percent of the male population is under 15 years of age, and 13.5 percent of the female (compared with 11.1 percent and 10.6 percent respectively in the United States). The birthrate is 15.1 per thousand of population, while that in Britain is 13.9. Ireland's infant mortality rate is lower than in the United States, although slightly higher than in Britain (8.2 percent versus 7.9 percent; the American rate is 9.1 percent). The mortality rate is 9.1 per thousand while Britain's is 11.2 percent. Ireland remains poor, with high unemployment, but GNP growth per person between 1985 and 1990 was more than twice as rapid as in the U.K. (3.7 percent compared with 1.5 percent).

These differences between Irish society in the Republic and overall British society are roughly true in Northern Ireland as well, between the Catholics and the Protestants there. The result has been a demographic decline of the Protestant majority, and thus of that discrepancy in power between Protestant majority and Catholic minority which is at the heart of the Ulster conflict.

Northern Ireland is as much a democracy as the Irish Republic or Britain itself -- contrary to what the IRA would like one to believe -- but because the British political system is one of majority-takes-all, the Protestants in the North have always won the elections that count, and they have not been kind to the minorities which lost.

They have dominated the affairs of Northern Ireland, often arrogantly, and since the partition of Ireland in 1920 they have been accustomed to running the system to their own advantage. Even today, after many reforms pressed upon Northern Ireland by the government in London, discrimination in the workplace and in Northern Irish society continues. The Catholics still have the worse jobs -- when they have jobs; unemployment is #F disproportionately high x for Ulster Catholics -- and have the less advantageous position in society and the affairs of the province.

Traditionally the Protestant majority was two to one over the Catholics. The latest census figures show that the Catholics now amount to 42-43 percent of the Ulster population -- and that figure is rising. There is a Protestant drift away from Northern Ireland -- significantly high among the young and the better educated, who are tired of the conflict and think their career chances better in England than in embattled Ulster.

Embattled the Protestants are. There now is a movement of Protestants toward creating ghettos of their own, well-to-do ghettos to be sure, but nonetheless enclaves of continuing Protestant majority, while the younger and increasingly prosperous Catholic population occupies the abandoned ground. The west of Ulster now has a Catholic majority. Census figures suggest that the city of Belfast itself will be predominantly Catholic by the end of the century.

There is a sinister side to what is happening. The trend of population growth and the unwillingness of the British government to support the old and intransigent positions of the Ulster Protestant majority have produced a mounting sense among the members of that majority that they are increasingly beleaguered, in risk of abandonment by a British public bored with Ireland's problems, tired of the violence and sacrifice involved in policing the province and battered by the IRA's unremitting campaign of murder.

Britain's official position is that it is neutral between the communities, anxious only to be an honest broker between Catholics and Protestants, and between Northern Irish officials and those of the Irish Republic. This has inspired a low-key panic among many Ulster Protestants.

The result has been mounting para-military violence on the part of the Protestant or Unionist underground organizations. Currently there are more killings by the Protestant para-militaries than by the IRA. There were nearly 40 such murders by the Unionist groups last year. A poll in April suggested that 42 percent of Ulster Protestants now support the Unionist para-military groups. At the same time Catholic support for IRA violence, both in the north and in the Republic, has sharply declined.

The Republic has also changed in important ways, with a woman president who is also a civil libertarian, and the most liberal government the Republic has ever had. The constitutional provisions which give a special status to the Roman Catholic Church and refuse to acknowledge the finality of the north-south partition are closer now to re-examination than they have ever been.

The Catholics, in short, are on their way toward a position in the North where they can win elections and set the agenda, and at the same time some of the old obstacles to understanding -- not to speak of union -- between north and south are being removed. The longer-term outlook permits some optimism about resolving the ancient struggle between Irish and English.

However the short-term prospect is for increasingly desperate measures by Protestant extremists in the North to prevent that happening. The "folie a deux" between IRA and Protestant para-militaries has yet to play itself out, but the outlook allows hope for the future.

William Pfaff is a syndicated columnist.

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