By committing himself to a crusade to radically reshape the Irish Republic's constitution and remove any tilts toward the Roman Catholic church, Prime Minister Garret FitzGerald has entered a political minefield.
But behind Dr. FitzGerald's decision is a deep and genuine concern for the future of the whole island of Ireland as the continuing violence in Northern Ireland prevents any political progress toward reconciliation.
The Irish Prime Minister believes that, despite Ulster's continuing violence, he and British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher must try to get politics moving again.No one, however, expected Dr. FitzGerald to grasp the nettle so quickly or so firmly -- and at a time when Anglo-Irish relations are extremely low over differing attitudes toward the Belfast hunger strike.
Dr. FitzGerald is expected to see Mrs. Thatcher in London in November where he will pick up the review of Anglo-Irish relations begun in Dublin by both the Irish and British governments last December. His openly expressed promise to put his political future on the line in a "crusade" to secure a change of attitudes in the Irish Republic is seen here as an earnest of his intentions.
The son of a Protestant mother from Northern Ireland and a southern Catholic farmer, Dr. FitzGerald has astonished his political opponents by pledging his new government to such an upheaval.
"If I was a Northern [Irish] Protestant today, I can't see how I could aspire to getting involved in a state which is itself sectarian. Our laws, Constitution, and our practices are not acceptable to the Protestants of Northern Ireland," Dr. FitzGerald said Sept. 27.
Dr. FitzGerald's advisers believe that an open discussion of the Irish Republic's 1937 Constitution could lead to a general acceptance that it is anachronistic. They want those sections of the Constitution which claim territorial control over Northern Ireland scrapped. And they want it amended to allow for the introduction of divorce legislation. Ireland remains one of only a handful of Western societies where divorce is outlawed.
Changing the Constitution requires a majority vote in a referendum. Dr. FitzGerald says he will call for a referendum if he feels there is a chance of success. But before that he will have to get the idea through parliament, where his frail coalition is ranged against the powerful Fianna Fail opposition.
Fianna Fail leader, former Prime Minister Charles Haughey has aleady come out with a stern rebuke for the prime minister, calling Dr. FitzGerald's ideas "hysterical." Mr. Haughey said the remarks were causing deep dismay to all who cherished Irish unity and that the opponents of Irish unity had been given propaganda ammunition that would be used for years to come.
There would doubtless be some soulsearching among some of his own conservative Fine Gael backbenchers. Dr. FitzGerald could not count on absolute support for a move in parliament.
Nor is the Catholic hierarchy likely to welcome efforts here to alter the marriage laws.
Reaction to Dr. FitzGerald's general thesis that change must occur in the South before it can be expected in the North has beengiven a mainly hostile reception among Northern Irish Protestants. They seem to suspect his motives. But moderate opinion, as expressed by the small Alliance Party of Northern Ireland, has applauded Dr. FitzGerald for his realism, and there have been words of encouragement also from Northern Ireland's Catholic politicians.