The Optimist and Northern Ireland

THE strife in Northern Ireland, and the resulting tensions it causes in British-Irish relations, can represent a challenge at times for even the hard-core optimist. In this part of the world, any weather that does not actually require the windshield wipers to be on high speed may count as ``fair.'' And one learns to search all clouds diligently for silver linings, with infrared light if necessary.

And so it is that the English Court of Appeal's ruling that four people have been wrongfully imprisoned for 15 years comes as a piece of good news. The court ruled last month that police had fabricated evidence in making their case against three Irishmen and an Irishwoman convicted in a 1974 terrorist bombing in Guildford, England.

The cloud is that such a miscarriage of justice occurred in the first place, and the silver lining is that it has at last been corrected. The Irish government has been generous in crediting the British for owning up to their mistake.

But many of the Irish have long felt that any of their compatriots charged with terrorist offenses England would have trouble getting a fair trial.

At this point the hard-core optimist begins to hope that the decision on the Guildford Four might help break up a logjam of difficult issues between London and Dublin. Over the past couple of years a string of British actions have gone against what the Irish might have hoped.

It was decided not to have the House of Lords review the appeal of the Birmingham Six - another group of alleged terrorists convicted of a bombing in England. And despite evidence of a ``shoot to kill'' policy by the Royal Ulster Constabulary (RUC), it was decided not to put constables on trial. A British soldier convicted of shooting to death an unarmed Roman Catholic was returned to active duty just three years after having been jailed, ostensibly for life.

And so on. British officials had an explanation for each of these, noting that their judiciary does not respond to the government's political exigencies.

But these episodes have left a bad taste in Irish mouths. The two sides seemed to talk past each other; one wondered whether the British hadn't been blinded by overconfidence in their justice system.

After years of struggle, family and supporters of the Guildford Four finally got the attention of such people as the archbishop of Canterbury and Cardinal Basil Hume, and the now-departed British home secretary, Douglas Hurd, whose investigation culminated in the reversal.

Mr. Hurd has become foreign secretary meanwhile, but the inquiry continues. It includes review of the case of the Maguire family, several members of which spent some years in prison on the basis of testimony from the Guildford Four - testimony now found to have been extracted under duress.

The Irish government has also asked for a review of the Birmingham Six case. There is now no new evidence in that case, as there was in the case of the Guildford Four. But the West Midlands police force, into whose custody the six were originally taken, is under investigation. This inquiry is unconnected with the Irish Republican Army's struggle to get the British out of Northern Ireland. But new evidence in the case of the Birmingham bombing may yet turn up.

It is understandable for a government struggling with the likes of the IRA to feel tempted to suspend rights of due process. But it is precisely when emotions are running high that due process is most needed. The Guildford decision will presumably lend weight to Irish officials' continuing pleas with Britain, in the framework of the Anglo-Irish accord, for increased safeguards for due process.

One of the greatest values of the four-year-old accord, which gives Dublin a consultative role in the governance of Northern Ireland, is that it brings British and Irish officials together to talk - for hour after difficult hour, as needed.

There is no lack of things that need discussing, either. One particular cloud looming over the relationship has been the spate of revelations about leaks of information from the security forces - the RUC and the Ulster Defense Regiment (UDR) - to loyalist (Protestant) paramilitary organizations. Although the RUC has made considerable progress in transforming itself into a professional, nonsectarian police force, it might be too much to say that Catholic confidence in the force is growing; better to say that distrust is lessening. And the UDR, even more heavily Protestant than the RUC, is even more fervently distrusted.

The British promise reforms. The Irish remain skeptical. But their discussions will surely continue.

`The accord wasn't written with the understanding that the meetings would be all sunshine,'' as one observer puts it.

Indeed not.

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