Can We Learn from Irish History?

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CAN the Downing Street Declaration signed last December by the Prime Ministers of the United Kingdom and the Irish Republic lay the foundations of a permanent peace in the island of Ireland? There are grounds for optimism provided there are cool heads and a determination on the part of politicians to avoid the quick fix. So many sad mistakes have been made in the past. One must hope that lessons will have been learned.

Above all, the political parties in both countries must, somehow, accept that the next generation is far more important than the next general election. Long term solutions are needed and must be sought. It is time to reflect that the Treaty of 1922 which set up what was then known as The Irish Free State and the Province of Northern Ireland has cast long shadows. Too many of the constitutional problems with us today stem directly from mistakes made with the best intentions seven decades ago. All could well be lost again in the long term unless everyone works together with goodwill to exploit an opportunity which seems to be there. This time, the result must be permanent and inviolate.

In particular, partition was seen by the then British Government as no more than a temporary expedient. Everyone, (with the possible exception of the Tory leader Bonar Law, who was happy with the idea of entrenching the Unionist hold on Ulster), seems to have expected that given time, passions would cool and co-operation would develop between Northern Ireland and the new Free State. How anyone thought this possible in the light of the florid language of what was called the Solemn League and Covenant signed by some 250,000 Ulster people in 1912 is a good question. Those folk had pledged themselves to fight, to |use all means which may be found necessary to defeat the ... conspiracy to set up a Home Rule Parliament'.

The mechanisms proposed in 1922 such as the Council of Ireland were never allowed to develop. Partition became a fait accompli set in a mould which has proved unbreakable. The Unionists have seen virtually every move as an attempt by a foreign power to take them over. They look upon the Irish Republic in much the same way as Falkland Islanders see Argentina. Their determination to resist has always been reinforced by terrorists who have tried to force the issue. It is beyond logic to think people can be forced into lasting friendship by being bombed and shot at. The Official IRA and, for the past quarter of a century, the Provisional IRA (PIRA) have, without doubt, worked against the United Ireland they claim to want. If only NORAID and other sympathisers overseas could have understood that!

But is terrorism really going to end? Even if PIRA lays down its arms for a while, is there not then a danger that, just as PIRA succeeded the Officials, there will be another madcap organisation ready to continue or renew the fight? The only sensible hope is that co-operation will develop and the world will see that Ireland will never be united by the bomb. Then support will wither away. The best way to defeat the bomber must be to tell the truth and go on doing so loudly and clearly.

The British Government has always maintained that it will uphold the democratically expressed will of the majority in Northern Ireland. In the light of what has happened, whether one is Unionist or not, this must be recognised as plain commonsense. What is more, the Government of the Republic, in spite of the clauses in the constitution claiming the whole island, offensive to some, has agreed. One would think Unionists would now be reassured enough to be happy to enter into talks with Nationalists and seek some way of living together peacefully. In the end, all Irish men and women have got to live on the same island and must find a way of doing so.

John Major has, however, now gone on to say that his Government is neutral about the Union and will support it only so long as the majority want it. …