As Christmas approaches, one's thoughts turn to peace on Earth. But not in Ireland. There the struggle over a piece of earth continues. The most recent flare-up in this continuing conflict concerns the plight of some 400 detainees held in Ulster's prisons. The detainees are staging a hunger strike at Long Kesh and Armagh; the Roman Catholic extremists and Protestant reactionaries, spurred by the strikers, are again taking up arms in an insane effort to either force a military solution or to jockey for position at some as yet unnamed bargaining table.
The efforts of the detainees, and the IRA and Protestant gunmen, will fail -- and they should. Until a new policy is adopted, peace will not come to Ulster. The 400 detainees may be released, and the gunmen's violence may subside, but the real prisoners of Northern Ireland -- the Catholic and Protestant citizenry and the British government -- will remain captive unless new plans are developed.
The needed policy must combine steps aimed at ending the immediate violence and providing the basis for a lasting peace. One such policy might be as follows:
* Full equality and justice must be extended to all citizens of Ulster and equitable treatment substituted for the discrimination of the past. The help given by the Northern Irish citizenry to the Catholic and Protestant extremists, either through outright assistance or indifference, will then be replaced by the citizen opposition required to defeat urban guerrillas.
* Britain should request an international peacekeeping force from the United Nations, the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, or, more realistically, the European Community, whose members have an economic interest in ending the conflict, which is a drain on British resources. Since Britain's Irish heritage makes it difficult for the British Army to end "the troubles," an international peacekeeping force could better convey the feeling that it was treating all citizens of Northern Ireland fairly.
* The status of Northern Ireland should remain unchanged until the people of Ulster decide, by democratic means, to alter that status. The vast majority of the North's citizens are more interested in the quality of life than whether they are governed from Dublin, London, or Belfast. And, if sectarianism cannot be solved in the six counties of Ulster, it cannot be solved simply by merging the North into a united 32-country Ireland.
* Integration of the schools of Northern Ireland is also a necessity. Given the tradition of the North, integration will be difficult to accomplish. But if complete and lasting peace is to be realized, segregated education must be eliminated. Unless children learn to live together and understand each other, they will be unable to live together in peace or understand each other when they become adults.
Admittedly, integrated education will cause concern among Ulster's Catholic and Protestant clergy who may see a religious benefit in separate education for Catholics and Protestants. Yet what is more important than enabling youngsters to develop into understanding adults? And what better way to attain this end than having them grow up together?
Some may argue that education in other countries is conducted on a sectarian basis without hostility between the religions involved. But those countries have neither the heritage nor the prejudices of Northern Ireland. Ulster proves that sectarian bitterness can explode at any time when children grow up in ignorance of each other's beliefs.
This plan for Northern Ireland would hardly please the IRA extremists, who desire the union of North and South, or Protestant reactionaries, who want to maintain their domination. However, it would end the eye-for-an-eye brand of sectarianism now and in the future. It would provide Catholics and Protestants with rights that have in the past been withheld from them by devious businessmen , politicians, and religious leaders who, employing the divide-and-conquer principle for economic and political purposes, convince them to forsake their own advancement and focus instead on the destruction of their Christian brothers. It would provide Britain with the honorable out that every state wants and with the opportunity to right past wrongs. And it would set the stage for cooperation that might lead eventually to the union of North and South and would lead immediately to better conditions for all the peoples of Ulster.
Of course, this policy might be as unsuccessful as previous ones. But one thing is certain: It stands a better chance of bringing peace to Northern Ireland than the stones, bombs, bullets, and empty rhetoric that have become so much a part of Ulster's everyday life.