Skip to: Content
Skip to: Site Navigation
Skip to: Search


Toward peace in Northern Ireland

By David BurnsDavid Burns is British consul general in Boston. / October 17, 1984



The IRA bombing at Brighton, England, was senseless carnage. Among its victims were two good friends of New England - the chief whip, the Right Honorable John Wakeham, MP, (seriously injured) and his wife (killed). Only days before they had and been guests in our house in Boston, Mass.

Skip to next paragraph

Northern Ireland is not a colonial problem resolvable simply by British withdrawal. It is a disservice to all peoples Ireland for public figures in the United States to encourage the belief that it is. The Irish government and the British government consider that such a withdrawal could lead to a civil war in Northern Ireland, which would seriously destabilize the neighboring Irish Republic. This view is shared by most thinking people in the US and elsewhere.

The problem in Northern Ireland is one of a division of loyalties between the million or so Unionists who wish to remain British and the half million or so Nationalists, many of whom aspire to a united Ireland, not one between Britain and Ireland. The Irish government shares this view of the nature of the problem.

The New Ireland Forum Report was a significant step forward in crystallizing the thinking of those in the Republic of Ireland and among the minority in Northern Ireland who favor a united Ireland. Perhaps for the first time, these groups extended to the million or so Unionists in the North the hand of friendship and cooperation rather than the prospect of annexation/absorption. I was much heartened to see in the report the recognition of the ''British identity'' of the Unionist community in Northern Ireland. I welcome its unqualified opposition to violence and to those who support violence. And I note with respect its acceptance of the principle of consent to any change in Northern Ireland's constitutional position as part of the United Kingdom.

The Forum Report does not, however, offer an immediate panacea. While reaffirming that Irish unity would have to be ''freely negotiated and agreed to by the people of the North'' (the principle of consent), the report did not address itself to how that consent might be achieved nor to what should happen while that consent is refused. Above all, the report did not reflect the views of the million or so Unionists in Northern Ireland. These have been published in separate documents entitled ''The Way Forward'' and ''Ulster, the Future Assured.'' They deserve as much study as the Forum Report. Unionist objections to the Forum Report are not so much directed at the form of Irish unity as at the principle of Irish unity: It would be wrong to underestimate the strength of Unionist determination to retain the British link. However, I believe the Forum Report recognizes that coercion is just not possible; persuasion is the only means. Moreover - as in the US - acceptance of the principle of consent must imply acceptance of the possibility of refusal.

Some Americans draw a parallel between Northern Ireland and Hong Kong. It is simplistic to make such a comparison. Negotiations with China over Hong Kong were essential because of the expiry in 1997 of the lease on the New Territories that make up 92 percent of the land area. Hong Kong was bound to revert to China and negotiations were necessary to ensure that the transfer was subject to binding international agreement to protect the interest of Hong Kong residents.

While discussion continues about the future that the people of Northern Ireland most desire, there is an attempt by some in the US to portray Britain as deliberately denying human rights to the people of the North. Nothing is farther from the truth. I was deeply distressed by the death of Sean Downes. I think I have more right to be than any American: He was one of my countrymen shot by another of my countrymen. There is no ''shoot to kill policy'' by the security forces. But there is a ''shoot to kill policy'' on the part of IRA terrorists supported and financed by organizations in the US. Over the long term, various terrorist organizations (Loyalist as well as Republican) have been responsible for over 80 percent of deaths from violence in the province. The security forces in Northern Ireland are as accountable to the law as any other citizen in the province. Evidence of this lies in the number of occasions in which policemen and soldiers have faced charges in the courts.

The system is far from perfect but, in difficult circumstances, we are doing the best we can in the interests of all of the peoples in the North, of whatever tradition. Northern Ireland boasts an impressive array of independent bodies set up to prevent discrimination - the Standing Advisory Commission on Human Rights; the Fair Employment Agency; the Equal Opportunities Commission; the Parliamentary Commissioner for Administration (who investigates complaints against government departments; the Commissioner for Complaints (who investigates complaints against local councils and public agencies); and the Police Complaints Board (which is charged with ensuring that all complaints against the police are properly investigated and which can insist upon reference to the Director of Public Prosecutions). Furthermore, the system of proportional representation in all but general elections provides an additional safeguard for minorities. There is now full recourse to the law for all who may be aggrieved.

Violence is not the way forward and both the British and Irish governments have long accepted that progress can only be achieved through the constitutional process.