The Talks and the Troubles
ANGLO-IRISH talks to try to end the conflict in Northern Ireland resumed on Sept. 1 against the background of a grim milestone from the previous week when the death toll in the Ulster troubles passed the 3,000 mark.
The dreadful reality of the 23- year-long saga of violence, social upheaval, and political deadlock did not galvanize the politicians into making a headline-grabbing statement about the need for an end to the conflict.
More significantly, they resisted the temptation to indulge in window-dressing and began the more mundane task of actually getting down to business. After the first day they delegated a 24-person, all-party committee to spend time thinking about a possible way ahead. The committee's report was presented to the plenary session of more than 50 members on Sept. 10.
The talks' continuation is in itself encouraging. After many barren years of talking at rather than to one another, political representatives in Belfast and Dublin, and party leaders in Ulster, now seem prepared to listen to one another rather than continue the futile process of exchanging political insults.
It is also encouraging that, in a province known for its social eloquence and talkativeness, the Anglo-Irish talks have produced very few "leaks." The scarcity of leaks points to the development of a working relationship among the participants. It also indicates their unwillingness to indulge in political opportunism by leaking information which in the long term could undermine mutual confidence and contribute to the collapse of the entire process.
The politicians face a formidable task. They are tackling not just the aftermath of years of violence, but the 300 years of Anglo-Irish history which has left its bitter legacy in modern Ireland.
Northern Ireland has 1 million Protestants, the majority of whom wish to retain links with Britain. In this sense they are British-Irish. A majority of the Province's half million Roman Catholics, however, would prefer a United Ireland by peaceful means, though some 9 percent of the voting population backs the Provisional Sinn Fein, which refuses to condemn the violence of the Irish Republican Army.
There are also many Roman Catholics who favor retaining the link with Britain because they are better off financially than they would be under a Dublin government. Finally, to complete this Ango-Irish jigsaw puzzle, there is the overarching relationship of Britain and Ireland who, like longsuffering in-laws, are faced with the unhappy marriage of their offspring in Ulster. But Britain and Ireland, partners in the European Community, may be able to work out a formula for also acting as close partners in k eeping the peace in Ulster.
Despite historic achievements in setting up these talks and in keeping them going, gaps still exist between the participants. The Unionist and Nationalist views of a future constitution are, at present, incompatible.
The Unionists favor the link with Britain and want to see it retained. They propose a new assembly for Northern Ireland, a system of committees with Irish Nationalist representation, and safeguards against Unionist domination.
The Democratic Unionists led by the Rev. Ian Paisley, object to the talks' agenda. They will not, however, boycott the talks but will send observers as "notetakers."
However, the Catholic representatives - the Social Democratic and Labour Parties - want six commissioners to run Northern Ireland. The commissioners would be appointed by the British and Irish governments and the European Community. The Catholic parties also want a strong constitutional link between Dublin and Belfast.
The politicians have to try to bridge the gap between these widely differing positions and to keep meaningful talks going in an attempt to narrow the gap, even if inch by inch.
No one is under any illusions about the difficulties involved. After more than two decades of troubles the resumption of talks creates no sense of euphoria. But the daily bloodletting makes the search for peace all the more vital. As I write, news of another killing comes in, this time of a young Catholic in North Belfast. Unless the politicians find new and successful ways of tackling the problems, the killing is not likely to stop.