Bold bid for Irish harmony

Prime Minister Garret FitzGerald has boldly proposed a crusade to reform the laws of his own Irish Republic in the interests of stable relations with Northern Island. In contrast with the present constitutional and legislative deference to the Roman Catholic Church, he would strive to turn his land into a genuine nonsecretarian republic. In a weekend Irish radio interview he spoke of his initiative in tones of regard for Northern Irish Protestants who cannot but see the present situation in the republic as unacceptable. But to follow through and achieve his goals would be an extraordinary contribution simply in terms of his own country and the nonsecretarian ideals it originally enshrined.

Dr. FitzGerald is not the first Irish prime minister to indicate the possibility of launching such reforms. He himself called for consideration of them a few years ago when his Fine Gael party was out of power. What is remarkable is to speak out so strongly now as his country's leader. Through his governing coalition is only narrowly in control, and political opposition to amending the Constitution has been strong, Dr. FitzGerald might just be riding an idea whose time is near.

During the past decade some Irish politicians have been unfavorably comparing the present "Catholic" Constitution, going back to 1937, with the original Irish Free State Constitution of 1922. The 1922 document emphasized freedom of religion and conscience. It did not proclaim the special position for the Roman Catholic Church which was recognized in 1937. As if this recognition were not enough to alienate Northern Protestants, the later Constitution declared the whole island national territory, despite Northern Ireland's inclusion in the United Kingdom. Laws on matters such as divorce and censorship have also reflected Catholic views.

Changing the laws would not suddenly end ecclesiastical influence in a nation that is 95 percent Catholic, with a Protestant citizenry that is more and more absorbed through intermarriage. Nor would it suddenly dispose the two-thirds Protestant majority in the North toward joining in the united Ireland based on nonsecretarian principles that is Dr. Fitzgerald's long-range goal. But his reform initiative could assist in developing a climate for improved relations between the North and South and thus for diminishing the religious and political strife that is causing such tragedy now.

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