The Irish-American myth about Ireland

The bombings in London by the Provisional wing of the Irish Republican Army last month were an unpleasant reminder that some of the most brutal terrorist atrocities of the past decade have been financed by American citizens.

They were a reminder, too, that throughout the turmoil that has plagued Northern Ireland since 1969 there has been no American policy on Ireland, only an Irish-American policy.

Ostensibly, Irish-American policy, as voiced by Rep. ''Tip'' O'Neill, Sen. Edward Kennedy, Gov. Hugh Carey, and others, advocates a united Ireland to be achieved by peaceful means. But it pays such faint heed to the fears, sensibilities, and aspirations of Northern Irish Protestants that it constantly undermines the hope of unification.

Irish-American policy accepts as gospel the theory that all Ireland's woes can be laid at the door of the British; that the ancient oppressor is the present enemy. If this premise is accepted, and many Americans apparently do accept it, it follows with reasonable logic that it is the British government that must ''do something'' to end Ireland's woes.

Specifically, the British are urged to end the 60-year-old partition of Ireland into the 26-county Republic of Ireland and the six-county province of Northern Ireland. Somehow, some way, by coercion and intimidation if necessary, the British government must force Northern Irish Protestants to discard British nationality and accept citizenship in the Irish Republic, accept rule from Dublin instead of London.

Irish-American policy asks the British to impose a dictated settlement on the Protestants of Northern Ireland. The Ulster Protestants are well aware of this, and the policy only makes them cling harder to their links with the United Kingdom.

Irish-American policy also nurtures an unrealistic view of the Irish Republic. Contrary to prevailing Irish-American mythology, the republic is not a battered leprechaun, only recently freed from bondage to the Saxon conqueror. It has been a self-governing entity for 60 years, totally free of any formal ties to the United Kingdom since 1949.

Few would deny the physical charms of the Irish Republic. But the Reformation passed Ireland by, and in the republic, with its 95 percent Roman Catholic population, the political and social power of the church is very great. Even so stalwart an Irish nationalist as Sean O'Casey found the atmosphere of the Irish Free State more stultifying than he could stomach. He chose to live in, of all places, England. Generations of other Irish intellectuals, both Catholic and Protestant, have found the air freer and more bracing in England, on the Continent, or in the United States.

Censorship, contraception, abortion, divorce: in its official attitude toward these sensitive issues of conscience, the Irish Republic still maintains an official stance more typical of a theocracy than a liberal, democratic, modern state. Northern Protestants point to former Irish Republic Prime Minister Liam Cosgrave's encounter with the church as an unhappy instance of the latter's political sway. As prime minister, Cosgrave introduced a bill to legalize contraception. When the church launched a campaign to defeat the proposed legislation, Cosgrave voted against his own bill.

For these and many other reasons, Irish Protestants in Ulster continue to resist both constitutional and terrorist pressures to join the Irish Republic.

But what if the republic should change? What if it abandoned its theocratic trappings and declared contraception, abortion, and divorce to be matters of individual conscience? What if the republic should evolve into a modern, secular state?

Given the atrocity-engendered bitterness of the past 13 years and the savage bigotry of Ian Paisley and his followers, Ulster's Protestant majority probably would approach the all-Ireland concept guardedly. There would be many sticky issues to thrash out in detail -- schools, the possibility of dual British-Irish citizenship, etc.

But a republic moving toward secularism, which declared all-out war on the IRA and other nationalist terror groups, and which shelved traditional bombast in its dealings with the North would be taking long, meaningful steps toward Irish unification.

A realistic American Irish policy would transfer its ''do something'' urgings from London to Dublin. It would support to the utmost any political and social reforms that tended to make the republic more appealing to Northern Protestants. And, while holding Britain to strict account for ensuring Catholic civil rights in Ulster, it would cease urging them to do the politically (in a democracy) impossible: bully the Protestants into the republic against their will. In his all too brief Dublin premiership a year ago, Dr. Garret FitzGerald showed real understanding of Ulster Protestant hangups on unification. It is to be hoped, for the sake of unification prospects, that he will return to office and that he will receive more demonstrative American support than he did in 1981.

A realistic American Irish policy would require a tremendous selling job of legislators such as Kennedy and O'Neill. If their devotion to Irish unity is any more than a political ploy, they would have to convince their constituents of two facts of life.

One is that every IRA bombing strengthens the resolve, and deepens the bitterness, of the ''no surrender'' Protestant right wing, while prolonging British troops in Northern Ireland.

The second is that countries or provinces behave like individuals; they are more apt to respond favorably to wooing than bludgeoning. The courtship may take longer. Frustrations and setbacks en route to the altar must be expected and accepted. But unification of Ireland by persuasion is the only hope of ending Ireland's ancient agonies once and for all.

The persuasion must come from the republic, and it should be fostered by the American government. If it is politic for the US to urge clemency for hunger-striking convicted terrorists, it should not be impolitic to urge persuasion along the lines outlined upon an Irish prime minister.

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