THE apparently unending agony and misery of Northern Ireland continues, with the recent murder of eight Protestant workmen by the Provisional Irish Republican Army (IRA) and demands by unionist politicians for greater security. The sense of unionist outrage and helplessness was increased when the British secretary of state for Northern Ireland, Peter Brooke, allowed himself to be coaxed into singing on a Dublin television chat show only hours after the workmen's bus was bombed on a lonely road in mid-Uls ter.
Mr. Brooke compounded his error of judgment by remaining in Dublin for a further day to attend a rugby football international, rather than hurrying back to sympathize directly with the families of the victims. Brooke, a patently good man who has worked long and patiently to bring Ulster's fractious politicians around a conference table, was clearly appalled by his own gaffe. He offered his resignation to British Prime Minister John Major, who firmly rejected it and praised Brooke for his painstaking work
in Northern Ireland.
The violence in Ulster seems to grind on and on. Just before Christmas 1991 the Provisional IRA unleashed a savage campaign of bombing in downtown Belfast, severely damaging the show-piece Opera House and several government buildings. It was a callous reply to the British government and the many traders who had worked patiently to build up commercial life in the city. Despite brave resolutions to continue "business as usual," an air of gloom has settled over the province. Belfast traffic is clogged by se curity roadblocks, and evening often brings news of more killings.
For those outside Northern Ireland, it is easy to underestimate the agony and to overestimate the simplicity of a solution. A great many European headlines have been created by the savage warfare in what was Yugoslavia. By comparison, the Ulster conflict is limited, and as an international news story it has long ceased to interest most viewers and readers. Yet the agony in the province is real; a recent photograph of a boy of 13 mourning at the grave of his father, one of the workmen murdered by the IRA,
pierced to the heart.
What can be done? At times of increased violence there are those - many of them outside Northern Ireland - who believe that the ultimate answer is a British withdrawal. This presupposes that in the ensuing vacuum the warring representatives of Ulster's 1 million Protestants, who favor continuing the link with Britain, and its half-million Catholics, many of whom favor a united Ireland by peaceful means, would quickly learn to live happily together.
History offers no guarantee of this. In such a security vacuum the violence would very likely increase, with Belfast becoming a kind of Beirut and with the warfare spreading south.
ANOTHER point of view is that Ulster might become independent. But in what sense? Such a tiny geographical area could not stand alone except with massive subvention from Britain or Europe. And while the Irish Republic still holds open the possibility of unity at some date, few people in Dublin seriously consider such an option because Ireland could not afford the extra financial burden. Nor could Ireland guarantee peace or stability in an area where the British, with their large military presence, have b een unable to prevent a sustained campaign of terrorism.
The major argument for Britain remaining in Northern Ireland, apart from protecting the warring factions and innocent bystanders from the worst excesses of violence, is that a majority of voters in Northern Ireland wish to retain that link. This makes it extremely difficult for a British government to justify withdrawal, which would be contrary to the democratically expressed wishes of the people.
It's hardly original to say so, but the only realistic option open to Britain is literally and grimly to soldier on and to hold out against the worst of terrorism while the politicians attempt to come to some agreement.
Brooke may be remembered by history as a secretary of state who sang out of turn and out of tune on Irish television at a time of cross-community mourning. But this error should not be allowed to overshadow his hard-working and honest attempts to snatch peace from the jaws of war. He performed a near miracle by persuading Northern Ireland's politicians to sit around a table for an all-too-short period last year. Although Brooke will have difficulty repeating the performance - certainly before the British
general election this spring - the need for talking remains. The politicians are slowly beginning to realize that talking is inevitable if the men of violence are not to remain at center stage.
In the longer term, it is my view that the development of the European Community, of which Northern Ireland and the Irish Republic are each a part, will soften the harsh edges of the current unionism and Irish nationalism. One day, people may come to realize that we have more in common as Europeans than differences as British or Irish, though that day remains a long way off.
In the meantime, what is required is continued courage in adversity, a determination that violence will not triumph over the political process, and a sense of vision and hope that peace can indeed come to this troubled land.