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After the Horror in Enniskillen

November 22, 1987|Mary Breasted | Mary Breasted is an American journalist who has lived in Dublin and London.

LONDON — If you were to capture an Irishman and blindfold him until you set him down in the center of an unfamiliar village somewhere north of the border, one thing would immediately tell him where he was: the pristinely kept war memorial.

It is a sight not seen south of the border in the Republic of Ireland, for the new independent Ireland stayed formally neutral in World War II, referring to the conflict as "the Emergency" as if to establish by an Orwellian verbal trick that Ireland did not inhabit the same universe as its former master Britain.

Nonetheless, all in Ireland knew there was a war on, and individually the Irish joined the British Army, thousands upon thousands of them, many thousands more than joined from tiny Ulster, where all the well-kept war memorials are. The few people who wear poppies around Dublin on Poppy Day now are assumed to be British or Protestant or both, and the Irish World War II dead lie officially unrecognized, a great historical secret.

The Irish Republican Army could not have picked a more stark emblem of Britishness for the target of its Poppy Day bombing than a war memorial surrounded by Remembrance Day observers, nor could it have picked a more thoroughly British holiday than last Nov. 8, when all Britain mourned its war dead.

Yet that bombing, which killed 11 civilians in the little Northern Irish town of Enniskillen, has been the single worst public relations disaster for the IRA since the modern "Troubles" began nearly 20 years ago. The Irish Catholic bishops condemned it en masse, and the Irish people stood in lines for a week to sign a condolence book in Dublin for the victims' families. Now similar books have been opened all over the country because there are so many in the Republic who want to express sympathy.

Charles J. Haughey, the Irish Prime Minister, issued a stern condemnation of the IRA soon after the bombing, and six days later his staff indicated that his government would support legislation which, for the first time since the partition of Ireland in 1922, allows the extradition of Irish nationalist terrorist suspects from the Irish Republic to Britain and Northern Ireland. The following day Haughey, a Roman Catholic, took a conspicuous place in Dublin's most prominent Protestant church during a memorial service for the bombing victims. He looked somber and determined during the televised ceremony, as if conveying a mute message to everyone who has identified him with the nationalist cause: To the hard men of the IRA, the Republic says no.

Of course the pendulum of Catholic Irish public opinion will inevitably swing back out of sympathy with Northern Irish Protestants. Nothing is ever static in the complicated relationships between Ireland, Britain and Northern Ireland, and two days after the announcement of his intention to support the extradition bill, Haughey was qualifying that support, warning British officials that there must be procedural safeguards "at the highest legal level" to prevent abuses.

But the fact that Haughey was able to support the legislation at all is amazing, given his party's traditionally negative attitude toward the idea of such a law. Probably the most astute politician in the Republic, Haughey divined that this was the moment when the national mood would allow him to move his party a giant step toward cooperation with Britain.

He had help in the person of Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, who stood up to pleas from northern Protestant Unionists after the bombing that she drop Britain's end of the Anglo-Irish accord. Her firmness against the Unionists on the question of the Anglo-Irish agreement throughout its two-year existence has won her the quiet respect of the Irish Republic. A recent newspaper poll showed overwhelming support for the agreement in the Republic, although most respondents did not think the accord had caused much real change in the north.

Not long after the Anglo-Irish agreement was signed by Thatcher and Garret FitzGerald (Haughey's predecessor) two years ago, an IRA sympathizer confided to me that Sinn Fein, the IRA's political wing, had begun to flounder in search of issues to topple it. The agreement was the brain-child of John Hume, leader of the Social Democratic and Labor Party which competes with Sinn Fein for the Northern Irish nationalist, and usually Catholic, vote. Since the signing, Sinn Fein's electoral support in Northern Ireland has gone down a few percentage points, the SDLP's has risen, and the SDLP has won two more seats to the British Parliament, now holding three of Ulster's 17 seats.

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