A Condominium for Northern Ireland


Paris -- The situation in Northern Ireland is the most favorable in a generation, with the guns of the hard men on both sides for the moment silenced, and the parties all talking. However, are they talking about the right things?

It has once again been shown that violence pays; thus there is serious reason to fear that it will return. Northern Ireland would not have reached the point it is at today had the IRA not pushed aside the peaceful civil-rights protests of the northern Catholic minority, which began in 1968, and begun its terrorist campaign against Britain and against the government of Northern Ireland. The IRA would not today have agreed to end its violence had Loyalist terrorists not repaid the IRA in kind for its killings. There have been more murders this year by Loyalist terrorists than by the IRA.

None of the violence was necessary, if all the Catholics wanted was equal treatment in employment and before the law. The Northern Ireland government of Prime Minister Terence O'Neill had already begun such reforms when the civil-rights movement emerged. He faced opposition from the province's Protestant majority, but this was ultimately unsustainable, Ulster voters being a small minority in the overall British electorate. The Catholics' political struggle could eventually have been won peacefully.

The IRA has wanted power -- power over the six northern counties of Ireland, to force them into union with the Republic of Ireland, against the will of those counties' Protestant majority population. The majority in Northern Ireland wants to remain citizens of Britain. The Loyalist terrorists wanted to perpetuate Protestant power in the six counties and also to dictate their own terms of rule to London.

This is the essential conflict, and it remains. It is the subject of negotiations today, but presents extreme difficulties, despite the constitutional concessions that have been proposed by the Irish government in Dublin, and the compromises which Prime Minister John Major's British government seems willing to make.

One course of compromise that does not today seem to be under consideration (certainly not in public) is to form a British-Irish condominium for Northern Ireland. A Paris international lawyer, John Whitbeck, has for many years been trying to persuade Israelis and Palestinians to make use of this constitutional arrangement. I think it fits Northern Ireland even better than the Middle East.

The practical model can be found in the condominium that governed the New Hebrides islands, in the South Pacific between Australia and Fiji, from 1906 until 1980 (when the

New Hebrides became the independent Republic of Vanuatu).

The New Hebrides Condominium was shared rule by Britain and France, in which the separate interests of British, French and New Hebrideans were all given constitutional guarantee. British and French resident commissioners governed the islands, acting jointly in some matters, and separately in others that concerned only their own nationality.

There were parallel and separate education systems, one of them French, the other British, each subsidized by the condominium's own government. There were separate British and French health services, each with their own hospitals and clinics, but a single rural health service run by the condominium itself. There were condominium courts and French and English national courts.

This obviously was a colonial system, whereas Northern Ireland is a democratic society and fully part of the United Kingdom. However, there are lessons for Northern Ireland in what successfully was done in the New Hebrides.

Let us suppose that it were agreed that the six Northern Irish counties were in the future to be simultaneously a part of the Irish Republic and of the United Kingdom, with each citizen free to choose which nationality he or she wished to possess, and which passport to carry, Irish or British, and in which of the two countries' national elections each would vote.

Northern Ireland's local government could be assured by a local authority under a Northern Ireland parliament or assembly, for which the residents of both nationalities would vote.

External security would jointly be guaranteed by Ireland and Britain, and internal security by a Northern Irish police under shared British and Irish government authority. I would think that a parallel system of courts would be appropriate, with those charged with crimes sent for judgment in the national court of the government in which the person had elected citizenship. Education and health services might be provided by parallel systems, as in the New Hebrides case, or by the Northern Irish authority itself.

This would seem to me an original way to deal with the otherwise intractable problem of political power in the six counties. It gives the Protestant majority permanent British citizenship, British courts, British education, British careers and a British guarantee of civil and religious liberties.

It gives the Catholic and republican minority Irish citizenship, if they want it, and Irish government guarantees of their rights and security. It gives Ireland itself a form of unity that acknowledges and yet solves its central historical problem, that of the conflicting claims and loyalties of the overall Catholic majority and of the Protestant minority.

It would bring Ireland and Britain closer together, in cooperation, to settle the conflict that has marked their tragic history and their peoples for 800 years.

William Pfaff is a syndicated columnist.

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