Solving the Irish question: step by step

MANY observers were disappointed that the recent summit meeting between Margaret Thatcher and Irish Prime Minister Garret FitzGerald failed to yield a solution to ``the Irish question.'' Having just returned from my first trip to Dublin and Belfast, where I met with Irish political leaders, I believe we must not fall into the trap of hoping for a ``New Ireland'' to emerge overnight. Instead, we should encourage Dublin, Belfast, and London to continue their political dialogue while also encouraging increased economic, social, and cultural interaction between Northern Ireland and the Irish Republic. We Americans, who live in a religious and cultural ``melting pot,'' have a tough time understanding Ireland's sectarian strife. The so-called ``Irish question'' is actually the tale of two minorities: the Roman Catholics, who are a minority in the six counties of Northern Ireland, and the Protestants, who are a minority on the island as a whole. The present wave of violence began in 1969, but the roots go much deeper than that. Catholics, roughly one-third of the population of Northern Ireland, believe they have been systematically excluded from gaining political power and prohibited from expressing their Irish culture. They would prefer to be linked to, or reunified with, the Republic of Ireland, which is 95 percent Catholic. Northern Ireland's 1.5 million Protestants, on the other hand, are adamant about retaining their link to Britain. They have deep-seated fears about being united with the nearly 3 million Roman Catholics who live in the Republic of Ireland, because they believe that ``Home rule is Rome rule.''

Now, after 15 years of bloodshed, Belfast, Dublin, and London are searching for a political consensus. Last May Ireland's Catholic community unveiled The New Ireland Forum Report, a comprehensive document outlining three proposals for a ``new Ireland.'' After having met with Prime Minister FitzGerald, I would like to emphasize what he has said about the Forum Report: ``It is an agenda for discussion, not a blueprint for action.'' Although Northern Ireland's Protestant community and Prime Minister Thatcher rejected the report's proposals, on grounds they would reduce British control over Northern Ireland, Mrs. Thatcher has given the report a ``pretty rigorous intellectual inspection,'' and she has noted that the ``Irish aspect'' must be taken into account.

I met with Mrs. Thatcher before her recent meeting with Garret FitzGerald, which she described as the fullest, frankest, and most realistic bilateral meeting she has ever had with Ireland's prime minister. No dramatic solution emerged from the summit meeting, but Mrs. Thatcher and Mr. FitzGerald agreed on a set of principles to guide them in the search for a political framework acceptable to both the majority and minority communities in Northern Ireland. They also agreed to continue their discussions next year.

Although many observers were disappointed that the summit meeting did not produce a breakthrough, behind these high-level negotiations I see a positive trend developing, as exemplified by a promising group known as ``Cooperation North.'' The purpose of Cooperation North, established in Dublin in 1979, is to build mutual respect and understanding between Northern Ireland and the Irish Republic through practical cooperation in economic, social, and cultural spheres, ``with no political strings attached.'' I believe this approach is right on target. An associate organization known as ``Cooperation Ireland'' was established in New York in 1981, while a sister organization opened in Belfast in 1982 and a London Support Group was set up in Britain in 1983.

Since its founding, Cooperation North has engaged in more than 30 cooperative projects in the areas of industry, trade and tourism, social services, education, sports, and culture. At least 10,000 people from over 1,000 private companies and voluntary organizations have been actively involved in these projects, according to the group's five-year report. Many of the projects undertaken have been the first of their kind. For instance, Cooperation North sponsored a series of concerts by a group of young musicians from North and South who were playing together for the first time. Other projects include arranging cross-border visits for handicapped groups, establishing a North-South company to promote trade between Northern Ireland and the Irish Republic, sponsoring joint overseas goodwill tours by the mayors of Dublin and Belfast, investigating the possibility of setting up a joint industrial zone between North and South, and sponsoring a major youth exchange program.

When viewed in isolation, none of these projects are earthshaking. However, when their cumulative effect is seen in the context of the current political dialogue, its importance is magnified. The programs involving young people may prove to be especially significant over the long term, given Ireland's overwhelmingly young population. The basic concept underlying Cooperation North's activities is that ``the generation of goodwill and understanding through active nonpolitical cooperation is a powerful means of counteracting the ignorance and suspicion that fuel conflict.'' It is not a dramatic solution, but it is an important step in the right direction.

Sen. Orrin G. Hatch (R) of Utah is a member of the board of the National Endowment for Democracy.

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