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Commentary | COLUMN LEFT / ALEXANDER COCKBURN

The Right People at the Right Moment

A time of hope for solving the 'Irish problem,' framed in institutional complexities.

April 16, 1998|ALEXANDER COCKBURN | Alexander Cockburn writes for the Nation and other publications

Over the long years, the commentators' arsenal of phrases about solutions to the Irish problem have become wearisomely threadbare: tag lines from W.B. Yeats, usually involving a "terrible beauty" or "passionate intensity" with which the worst are filled; a hope that maybe now at long last "the gun can leave Irish politics."

And now, of course, we are at a moment of hope, not imbued with beauty, terrible or otherwise, but swaddled in institutional complexities, which is the only way the Ulster crisis could ever be relieved. The building blocks of peace are not tags from Yeats, and the great romantic phrases of Irish nationalism, but institutions such as the North-South Ministerial Council.

The Protestants of the Six Counties get back direct rule via the Northern Irish Assembly. The Catholic Nationalists on both sides of the border get the North-South Ministerial Council and the federalists get the Council of the Isles, where representatives from the two Irelands, Scotland, Wales and England will muster.

It was always clear that federalism was the only way to reconcile the irreconcilable. Though religious and sectarian enmities are among the most resilient of all political emotions, federalism can help smooth out the rugged landscapes of history. The European Union has thrown enough money into the Irish Republic that it is no longer the rural poor relation to the Six Counties of the North, which in turn are less prosperous than they once were in the heyday of the shipbuilding and linen industries. The European Union also has offered the Irish Republic a regional venue where it has been able to take its concerns and muster pressure against its neighbor.

Hatred breeds most fiercely amid economic desperation. Over the past 30 years, Britain has invested enormous sums in Northern Ireland and U.S. corporations have swarmed into the republic, whose well-educated work force flood into the assembly plants that give America a springboard into Europe. These past three decades have seen the republic economically transformed to a point where, on some measurements of per capita income, it is ahead of the United Kingdom.

So the whole economic context has changed, thus offering political opportunity. And at that moment of opportunity, Britain had a prime minister, Tony Blair, not dependent like his Conservative predecessor, John Major, on the votes of Ulster members of the Westminster Parliament, but enjoying a huge majority. At that moment, too, we have had a U.S. president, Bill Clinton, politically sympathetic to the concerns of Irish nationalism to a degree unimaginable in any of his predecessors in this century. Sinn Fein has a politically supple and skillful leader in the form of Gerry Adams. And David Trimble, leader of the Ulster Unionists, is no fanatic, like Lord Carson of repellent memory, or even Ian Paisley. If nothing else, Trimble can see that demographically the Catholics in the North are on the upswing; in economic terms, they are becoming stronger, too.

So we are indeed at some sort of crossroads. It could all blow up, of course. One of the armed factions could shoot Adams, or Trimble, or a busload of children, or blow up a pub. South of the border, the Irish could decide not to approve amendments to their constitution. It's all a matter of credibility, whether people both sides of the border actually believe that the elaborate new institutional structures, the political deals, offer a way forward into peace and prosperity, also the all-important sense that political justice has in some way been achieved.

A sense of historical realism is always essential. George Mitchell, the former U.S. senator and chairman of the peace talks, said last weekend, "It doesn't take courage to shoot a policeman in the back of the head or to murder an unarmed taxi driver. What does take courage is to compete in the arena of democracy." It's an uplifting sentiment, but not true. Back in the 1950s and most of the 1960s, when the armed, paramilitary Protestant B-Specials roamed the Six Counties, terrorizing the Catholic minority, there was no "arena for democracy" for those Catholics. And it took enormous courage and commitment to fight that tyrannical Protestant majority, whose idea of a solution to the Ulster problem was to have all the Catholics leave.

Despite what Mitchell said, sometimes a gun has to be pointed, and it's an insult to Irish history to say otherwise. The Irish "problem" began hundreds of years ago, about the same time as the Yugoslav "problem." It's far too soon to say that history has truly changed step.

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