Britain and Ireland are engaged in a dialogue impossible to imagine a year ago. On Feb. 22, the governments of British Prime Minister John Major and the Irish Taoiseach John Bruton jointly published a discussion document designed to lift Northern Ireland out of a centuries-old rut of violence, grievance and mutual suspicion. Amazingly, it is acting as a catalyst for constructive conversations.
Why shouldn't it? Because for most of this millennium, the two groups have been locked into wildly divergent visions of where their futures lay. The Protestant Unionists (descended from English and Scottish settlers brought to the northern province of Ulster in the early 17th Century to support a land grab by Henry II 450 years earlier) have clung to the 1801 Act of Union by which Britain annexed Ireland into the newly named United Kingdom. Catholic Republicans, for just as long, have been fighting for independence and Irish unity.
It is hard to overstate the impact of this long and painful past. For the Irish, memory is a living, pathological condition that makes the injustices inflicted on family members a matter of everyday conversation, whether they date from the Battle of the Boyne, in 1690, or the potato famines of the 1840s, or the last 25 years of sectarian killings.
Into this hell of total recall comes a draft peace treaty drawn up not by the two communities but by their protectors--the Irish and the British governments. This "framework document" proposes a new 90-member parliamentary assembly in Belfast and an advisory body made up of governmental department heads from both sides of the Irish border. The body will report, as a single unit, to the European Community and will, for the first time, harmonize policy across the whole island on education, agriculture, social service, economics, health and tourism. Mainland Britain will not be directly represented.
London and Dublin have been developing this approach since December, 1993, the date of the "Downing Steet Declaration," even entering into secret talks with Sinn Fein, the political wing of the Irish Republican Army. Behind its smoke screen of posturing, Sinn Fein is pleased with the results. So are most British and Irish politicians. But Ulster's British Unionist politicians have condemned it for hastening Irish unification.
The Unionists are hypersensitive but their fears are not implausible. They have always regarded as potentially treacherous Britain's view, enshrined in the document, that Ulster's sovereignty is a matter for its people to decide and not an absolute fact. That Britain is now offering Ireland a political role in the North's affairs seems like the realization of that treachery. The Rev. Ian Paisley, the mad-dog leader of the Democratic Unionist Party, has, as expected, attacked the peace plan as a "one-way street to Dublin"; but more mainstream loyalists also anticipate that they will soon be living under Irish rule.
On Friday, Ulster's 13 Unionist parliamentarians rejected the framework document as full treaty between Britain and Ireland. In spite of their fears, however, they have not yet withdrawn from the talks or acted in Westminster to bring down Major's government, which depends on their votes for its majority. Why not? What could induce them to accede to moves that could legitimize the political aims of the South while holding out nothing for the Protestant North, except an end to supremacy?
The first answer is practical. On Sept. 1 last year, the IRA declared a cease-fire, matched six weeks later by Protestant paramilitaries. Unlike the cease-fires of 1972 and 1975, the peace has held. For the first time since 1969, people in Belfast and Londonderry have enjoyed relative security: an end to random searches in the streets, army roadblocks, bomb blasts, executions and the ubiquitous military and police presence.
The peace has brought a new sense of hope, and also of moderation. Having tasted normality, the public wants more of it. Paisley's old stridency is less appealing; he seems unsure of his support. Former Protestant gunmen are emerging with a new, more pragmatic form of leadership. The frustrated business community also wants peace: In the last six months, unemployment has plunged and retail sales have soared. Results like these are hard to argue with.
Britain and Ireland have also guaranteed a "triple lock" protecting the wishes of the majority in the North. No constitutional change can occur without being approved by popular referendum, Northern Ireland's political parties and Parliament.
Most crucial, however, is the fact that the framework document is not the proposal for unification that it has been seen as (not least in a selective preemptive leak published Feb. 1 by the Times of London and reported by a 26-year-old editorial writer who is also a Unionist activist). The document actually proposes something different: mutual recognition. Not only does it require the South's disavowal of any territorial claim to the North but also its recognition of the North's right to self-determination--an astonishing concession and one that Sinn Fein is said to share, thanks to its president, Gerry Adams.
Hard-line Unionists reject this advance because they see it merely as the thin edge of a nationalist wedge. Opponents of another hot political issue, Britain's integration into Europe, are supporting them in the hope of suppressing any further erosion of British nationalism. This leaves Major with the tricky task of reassuring the Protestant community without alarming the Republican suspicions.
The balance has held but is slipping. Queen Elizabeth II has been sent on a solidarity visit to Ulster but Britain has dropped its ban on ministerial contact with Sinn Fein. Britain has also failed to persuade the United States to deny Adams a visa to fund-raise and an invitation to a White House reception on St. Patrick's Day--an ill-judged by President Clinton because it is the Protestants, not the Catholics, who now need wooing. On the other side, Britain has taken Sinn Fein's commitment to peace seriously, lifting 16 of its 56 exclusion orders preventing individuals from Northern Ireland entering the British mainland, disbanding Belfast's civilian bomb squad and diluting its demand that the IRA disarm before Sinn Fein enters full talks.
Such news would once have had the Protestants out on the streets shouting, "Ulster Says No." For now, they seem to be swallowing it. With only 12% of popular support in the province and a growing interest in international statesmanship, Sinn Fein has even less cause to return to violence. The IRA may also need weapons to deter its renegades.
Unionist leaders know this. They also know that the British Parliament is impatient with them and generously supports Major and that differential birthrates may soon make Catholics the majority in the North, leaving Unionists marginalized not just by a changing tide of feeling but by cold, hard demographics. The key man here is James Molyneaux, the so-called "wise old owl" who leads the Ulster Unionist Party and has not yet made a move.
Protestants destroyed a power-sharing initiative in 1974 and Thatcher's Anglo-Irish Agreement in 1985. Molyneaux could do it again. Major is gambling that he won't.*