Would Protestants in Northern Ireland, who retain their allegiance to the British Crown, ever be willing to live in a united, overwhelmingly Roman Catholic, Republic of Ireland? Yes, says a young Protestant father in Belfast, the capital of Northern Ireland. But he adds an essential proviso:
Freedom of religion must be guaranteed.
While it is debatable whether most Protestants would go along with a united Ireland, even if the Republic became a pluralist society, the views of this Northern Protestant are a fillip to many Irish.
Winning Northern Protestants over to a united Ireland just might be possible if some changes could be made in the Republic's Constitution and its laws.
Such, at any rate, is the assessment of some who live in the Republic.
That is why the recent passage through the D'ail (parliament) of the Family Planning Bill is described by one interpreter of the Dublin political scene as ``the most important event to have happened here in 30 years.''
Until the passage of this bill Ireland had said ``no'' to contraceptives, ``no'' to divorce, and ``no'' to abortion. In each case the interests of the Roman Catholic Church were paramount.
But the passage of the Family Planning Bill now legalizes for the first time the public sale in Ireland of condoms to people 18 years old and older.
The signficance of such legislation is that it asserts for the first time the primacy of the state rather than the Catholic Church. Not only was the bill in defiance of the Catholic Church, it was also done without prior consultation with the church.
As a result of the change in the political climate, reforms are more likely now in the area of divorce. One political commentator suggests, ``The real argument is not over contraceptives. It's over divorce.''
The bill to make contraceptives freely available was viewed by its backers as reflecting popular opinion in the Republic. Recent polls, in fact, show that as many as 83 percent of the people in Ireland approve the sale of contraceptives.
Politicians in the Republic, conscious of the resistance Protestants in the North have toward possible unification, say they hope those in the north are viewing accurately these ``signals.'' They see the recent passage of the Family Planning bill as clear signal that the Catholic Church no longer dominates the Republic's political processes.
A former school teacher in Northern Ireland suggests that Irish nationalism might have won wider support in the North if it had been a secular movement.
Even some ardent Republicans opposed the 1937 Constitution because they saw this essentially Catholic document as perpetuating, rather than removing, partition.
Contrary to popular understanding outside Ireland, though, Roman Catholicism is not a state religion. In principle, the Constitution allows for the separation of church and state.
Moreover, Tom'as Cardinal O Fiaich, archbishop of Armagh and primate of all Ireland has gone on record as saying he supports separation of church and state:
``It is good for the state and church,'' he has said, ``I don't think churchmen should be in anyway involved in trying to bring pressure on legislation.''
Catholics make up 91 percent of the population, Protestants four percent; the balance is made up of those with no religious affiliation and a very small number of Jews. Because of this, the Catholic Church occupies ``a special position'' in the Irish Constitution.
With both principal parties, the ruling Fine Gael and the opposition Fianna F'ail, very much on the conservative end of the political spectrum, Irish politics has been traditionally loyal to the teachings and sentiment of the Catholic Church.
And because of that supporters of the family bill argued that until such time as the Republic fully exercised its jurisdiction there could be no hope of persuading ``our fellow Irishmen in the North to join us.''
The Family Planning bill, and its break with the Catholic Church, thus marks a watershed in Irish politics.
Desmond O'Malley, former Irish Justice Minister and the leading member of the opposition Fianna F'ail party until he was expelled last month for voting in favor of the government-backed Family Planning bill, underscores the significance of the legislation:
``The passage of the bill,'' he says in his Dublin office, ``demonstrates that separation [of church and state] is here and works effectively.''
He hopes that the legislation will encourage moderate Protestants in the North to reassert themselves.
In his speech to the D'ail before his expulsion from Fianna F'ail, the consequences to North-South relations (that is, between Northern Ireland and the Republic) if the bill were to be defeated ranked uppermost in his mind:
``If the bill is defeated there are two elements on this island who will rejoice to high heaven. They are the Unionists in Northern Ireland and the extremist Catholics in the Republic.''
Mr. O'Malley conceded they were a curious alliance, but claimed in his speech: ``They are bound together by the vested interest each of them has in the perpetuation of partition. Neither wishes to know the other. Their wish is to keep this island divided.''
The risk of the Family Planning bill, says one Irish commentator who has worked closely with the political situation North and South, is that too much will be read into it. He suspects a little too much self-congratulation by government ministers: ``They've stuck in their thumbs and pulled out a plum and said aren't we good boys.'' But he warns that if the South thinks the North will be impressed by such gestures they are mistaken.
At times like this Northern Protestants and Southern Catholics are sometimes irked by world opinion which always beats the religious drum when reporting conflict on the island.
Though the 1937 Constitution was based on Catholic principles, some of the most prominent fighters for Irish independence have been such Protestants as Wolfe Tone, Robert Emmett, and Charles Stewart Parnell.
Many Protestants in the South today don't feel they are threatened culturally or religiously. They occupy positions of prominence out of all proportion to their numbers. In fact, some 25 percent of the top businessmen in Ireland are said to be Protestant.
The editor of the Irish Times, Douglas Gageby, is a Protestant, and Trinity College in Dublin has had strong Protestant associations. Similar parallels can be found in the North. A Catholic, Michael McAtamney, is deputy chief constable of the Royal Ulster Constabulary.
In what is seen as an act of political maturity, Queen's University in Belfast appointed Prof. Cornelius O'Leary, who is both a Catholic and a Southerner, to the sensitive post of head of political studies.
A reader in Irish History at that University, Dr. A. T. Q. Stewart suggests that there are whole areas of life in Northern Ireland where ethnic identification never crops up or where it is simply irrevelant.
Catholics in the Falls Road area or Protestants in the Shankill Road area in Belfast have no idea when they board a bus whether the bus driver is Protestant or Catholic. They are not likely to inquire, and most don't care. But even if all religious objections to the Republic of Ireland were dropped it would not remove all Protestant anxieties.
What many Protestants still find repugnant in the Irish Constitution are Articles 2 and 3 which define ``national territory'' as the whole island of Ireland, automatically including Northern Ireland.
At the same time, in deference to the political realities of the day, the Irish Constitution also concedes that effective jurisdiction is confined to the Republic pending reintegration of the national territory.
In his book ``Irish Nationalism -- a History of its Roots and Ideology,'' author Sean Cronin argues that what divides Protestants and Catholics in Northern Ireland is ideology.
He adds, ``They disagree on who should govern them. Unionists reject and fear Irish nationalism, while nationalists reject union with Britain, which for them has always taken the form of Protestant power.''