Dublin's Irish identity begins to make itself heard in London

It is not just the handsome Georgian buildings, the immaculate St. Stephens Green with its tidy paths and lawns meandering beside an artificial lake, or the gracefully arching bridges that span the River Liffey that make Roman Catholics from the north feel welcome here in Ireland's capital. It is also the sight of the Irish tricolor fluttering above those magnificently doored Georgian buildings and the street names written in English and Gaelic.

Northern Catholics would like to see such elements of the Irish identity transplanted to largely Protestant Northern Ireland, which is governed not by the Dail (parliament) in Dublin, but by direct rule from the British Parliament in Westminster.

Catholics from both the north and the Irish Republic are pressing the British government to drop from the Northern Ireland Constitution the Flags and Emblems Act -- which bars display of the tricolor where it might prove provocative -- and another act that prohibits Gaelic (or Irish) street names in Northern Ireland.

The removal of such legislation is only part of a wider package of reforms that both John Hume's Social Democratic and Labour Party (SDLP) in the north and the government of the Irish Republic hope the British government will introduce.

If agreed upon, they'll be on the agenda of the next Anglo-Irish summit now postponed until summer. The effect would be a formal recognition of the ``nationalist'' identity of the Catholic minority in Northern Ireland.

Other proposals intended to head off the outlawed Irish Republican Army (IRA) and its political partner, Sinn Fein, are Catholic power-sharing with the Protestant majority, a reconstituted police authority with more minority representation, as well as an offer to give Dublin some say in the affairs of Northern Ireland as a protector of the Catholic minority.

But the IRA and Sinn Fein say there is nothing the British government could offer, short of total withdrawal from Northern Ireland, that would satisfy them.

The latest proposals to bolster the nationalist image of the SDLP fall short of the ultimate solutions proposed by the Dublin-based New Ireland Forum. The forum, which brought together the three main political parties of the south and the northern Catholic SDLP (the Unionists declined to participate), suggested three alternatives for resolving the Northern Ireland problem.

But British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher dismissed all three out of hand. Her manner in saying ``out'' to a unitary state, ``out'' to a federal state, and ``out'' to joint authority -- rule from Dublin and London -- was seen as an affront to Irish sensitivities. Northern Protestants greeted her categoric repudiation of the options with relief. To the SDLP, though, the forum provided both an analysis of, and solution to, their problem.

Since then, Mrs. Thatcher has adopted a far more conciliatory attitude to the status of the Catholic minority and to the feelings of the Irish Republic.

According to an informed source here, some of the moderation is due to strong pressure by Ronald Reagan and Speaker of the House of Representatives Thomas P. (Tip) O'Neill during her recent visit to the United States when she addressed both houses of Congress.

Dublin has been irritated for some time by Thatcher's looking to the Irish Republic for closer cooperation on the security issue but showing little inclination to resolve the broader political issue. That view is changing. For one thing, Whitehall now accepts the validity of Dublin's claims to speak for the nationalist minority in the north.

To the relief of the British government, the willingness of Dublin and London to move closer to each other has so far been viewed with relative equanimity by the Official Unionist Party. Some of this stems from the fact that Unionists appreciate how much of a direct internal threat the IRA poses to both the British and Irish governments.

As one prominent Unionist said of Dublin's apprehension of possible IRA subversion in the south: ``They've got to keep that fire from the barn.''

That danger has virtually removed any northern apprehensions that Dr. Garret FitzGerald's Fine Gael government is ambivalent toward the IRA. The Dublin government has also been sensitive to the concerns of the Protestant majority in the north.

There is an acceptance here that if the north must accommodate nationalist aspirations, then the Irish Republic must also make constitutional changes that could reassure Northern Ireland's Protestants that religious freedom is possible in an Irish unitary state.

The recent passage of the family-planning bill permitting the sale of nonmedical contraceptives, such as condoms, is significant to many in the south precisely because it demonstrated that the state was not beholden to the Catholic Church. The church opposed the measure but wasn't even consulted before the bill was passed.

Just how much Protestants in Northern Ireland, who cling to their British connections, would be won over by constitutional changes that affirm the primacy of the state over the church is debatable.

A skeptical Irish commentator who has lived in both Dublin and Belfast is convinced it ``wouldn't make a blind bit of difference to Protestants in the north.'' In his view, the Irish middle class has a romantic notion that constitutional change in the south would someday open the floodgates to Protestants in the north. Such optimists, he claims, have ``a capacity for political self-delusion that knows no bounds.''

Desmond O'Malley, the former Irish Justice Minister, contends that the vote in the Dail will in the short term ``encourage more moderate elements in Northern Ireland to reassert themselves.'' He regrets that since the fall of the power-sharing executive in Northern Ireland in 1974 and the death of former Unionist leader Brian Faulkner, moderate unionism has ``become a little unfashionable.''

Another imponderable is whether all northern Catholics would embrace a unitary state. Their hearts say ``yes'' but their pockets say otherwise. What Ulster provides better than the Irish Republic are social services, lower prices, and lower taxes.

If there is any unanimity on the Northern Ireland issue, it's a recognition that Thatcher's role is crucial.

Because of her commanding political position and that fact she has no need to prove her Unionist credentials, some political experts likened her to the nearest thing Britain has to a Charles de Gaulle, who gave Algeria its independence from French colonial rule.

SDLP leader John Hume says: ``At the end of the day, it's all down to how far Maggie is prepared to go.''

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