Rising tensions in N. Ireland spur the search for solutions

The search for answers to 60 years of strife in Northern Ireland is becoming more urgent as tension and violence drive former moderates toward opposing extremes.

Voters in recent local elections, for instance, deserted the moderate center in droves. Extremists on both sides were strengthened.

But the search for solutions goes on. Despite petrol bombs, hunger strikes, and world headlines, moderates in Belfast, London, and Dublin have by no means given up.

Their ideas don't often receive much attention here or abroad. Skeptics say passions are too high, the gulf between Protestant and Roman Catholic, between loyalist (loyal to union with Britain) and republican (favoring an all-Ireland republic) too wide.

Yet there are those in Westminster and Dublin, especially, who refuse to accept that the search is hopeless. "The bigger the problem," remarks one senior political figure in the House of Commons over lunch, "the bigger the solution."

Almost from a sense of desperation, these elements have emerged:

* A voice from Britain's moderate left, former foreign secretary David Owen, would try to blur the animosities aroused by the Ulster dispute by having British and Irish governments discuss it in the wider diplomatic framework of the European community.

The aim would be to work out a plan approved by the European Community as well as the United States, and present it to the feuding Northern Ireland factions as a fait accompli. In principle the plan would try to preserve Ulster Protestants' Britishness while offering the Roman Catholic minority certain rights and participation as well.

Details just available here envisage conferring some domestic powers to an Ulster assembly. Dublin, capital of the Irish Republic to the south, would take over economic representation, for example in the OECD (Organization of Economic Cooperation and Development). But in foreign affairs the North would continue to be represented by London.

* The respected weekly, the Economist, says considerable numbers of people are pondering various new ideas for the province. The magazine devoted three pages of a recent issue to sorting out common points and varying approaches.

The weekly sees a broad consensus in favor of the North maintaining its British links and its own legal system. But it suggests that some form of united Ireland framework would have to include a constitutional court guaranteeing majority and minority rights.

One solution: North and south would remain autonomous with a central administration handling foreign affairs, banking, and ties to the European Community.

Another: A central Irish parliament could contain Northern as well as southern representatives, with a provincial council in the North looking after social legislation, housing, education, and taxation.

* Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher's own approach took her to Dublin last December for talks with Irish Prime Minister Charles Haughey. She began a virtual end run around Ulster's Protestants by setting up joint Anglo-Irish studies between civil servants. They include such topics as new Anglo-Irish cooperation on border security, joint electricity supplies, and perhaps even an Anglo-Irish council.

In any such "council," Dublin would send members of the Irish Dail (parliament) and London would appoint at least some Ulster members of the British House of Commons.

The talks are still at an early stage, but already they have aroused vehement opposition from Ulster's hard-line Protestant leader, the Rev. ian Paisley, who calls them a "sellout" of Protestant rights. Such extreme views have just won his Democratic Unionist Party a host of new local government seats at the expense of the Official Unionist Party.

* Within British politics, the far left as well as the moderate left has begun to break away from the bipartisan consensus on Ulster that Mrs. Thatcher has been able to count on until now.

Far left spokesman Tony Benn, now battling moderate Denis Healey for the Labour Party's deputy leadership, has made Ulster a campaign issue. He insists the 11,000 British troops in the North are the problem and urges that UN peace-keeping forces replace them.

Dr. Owen is exploring his European Community idea in his new capacity as one of the founding members of Britain's new center-left Social Democratic Party.

And now Merlyn Rees, the Northern Ireland secretary in James Callaghan's former Labour government, suggests abolishing the formal "veto" Ulster Protestants have over changes in the North -- a veto flowing from successive British governments' promises that there would be no change in the province's status against the wishes of the (Protestant) majority. Mr. Rees, however, still believes it is impossible to force 1 million Protestants into any arrangement they absolutely refuse to accept.

On a rather narrower focus, Britain's Liberal Party wants an all-party delegation to visit the Maze prison outside Belfast to talk to warders and inmates. The hunger strike campaign for political prisoner status by members of the illegal Irish Republican Army is centered there.

But the newest and perhaps most sweeping approach is Dr. Owen's. He does not think Britain and the Irish Republic can bridge the divide over Ulster alone. Nor, he feels, can Ulster form an independent country by itself.

So he suggests the larger international forum in which the collision of British and Irish points of view might be softened. Such a framework for discussions could allow both London and Dublin to make concessions that neither could make standing alone.

One immediate criticism: Neither London nor Dublin would permit anyone else in Europe to dictate terms.

But the plan emphasizes that both sides would retain control of the talks. Since European decisions are taken on the basis of consensus, nothing unacceptable to the sides concerned could emerge.

Under the Owen proposal, the new assembly in the North would have autonomous control over such domestic areas as health care. Roman Catholics would sit on committees and hold some chairmanships. British citizenship could be retained with British passports in the new European Community format about to be issued. Dublin would join NATO to secure British strategic interests once British troops leave the North.

But how can the Provisional IRA be persuaded to stop shooting and the Protestant hardliners to accept change?

That remains the nub of the problem. In the past neither side was willing to bend enough to reach a workable compromise and power-sharing efforts have been sabotaged.

Any attempt to impose a solution worked out behind the scenes will require enormous political courage in London, not to mention a readiness to use those hard-pressed British troops against Protestant extremists as well as republican urban guerrillas.

Meanwhile, the Economist believes the key to a solution lies in preserving the Northern Irish Protestants' sense of identity. At the same time, while ensuring that Northerners retain United Kingdom citizenship and their own legal system (plus the all-Ireland constitutional court), the magazine recommends that efforts should be made to draw more Catholics into the police force in the North.

No one had yet come up with the "right" way to link North and South, says the Economist. The concept of autonomy, with a central administration taking over foreign policy and links with Europe, was an exploratory one.

So was the idea of a central Irish parliament with a regional council in the North. But it was generally agreed, the weekly said, that economic aid would be needed from the European Community, and that Ireland as a whole should join the NATO alliance.

The official talks begun last December by Mrs. Thatcher and Mr. Haughey, meanwhile, are moving slowly. Neither side releases details for fear of inflaming passions in the North, in the south, or in Britain.

The pitfalls ahead are evident. Mrs. Thatcher is already unpopular in Britain for her budget-cutting and may feel unable to endure another storm of controversy by confronting Ulster Protestants.

Mr. Haughey may well be defeated in the general elections he has called for June. His replacement would be Garret Fitzgerald of the Fine Gael party. Mr. Haughey might hope to sell a radical new solution in the south because of his strong nationalist credentials; but could Mr. Fitzgerald hope to do t he same?

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