Brits to Ulster: `Whatever!'

As those in Ireland and Ulster debate the future, the English yearn to be rid of the whole problem

PRIME Minister John Major is trying to convince Northern Ireland's Protestants that their province will remain part of the United Kingdom unless a majority, voting in a referendum, opts for change.

But from the perspective of people living on the British mainland, there is less need for public reassurance, and quite a few seem to care little about Northern Ireland's future constitutional status. There is little doubt that if peace broke out between the Catholic and Protestant paramilitary groups, some of the loudest cheering would be on this side of the Irish Sea, whether or not Northern Ireland stayed in the kingdom.

In the last few years, opinion pollsters have found large numbers of mainlanders less than enthusiastic about the province remaining in the UK. Significant majorities have said they they think British troops should be withdrawn. But the government in London has consistently taken the opposite view, and many English, for reasons of religious affiliation, continue to support to the hilt the Protestant cause in Northern Ireland.

Andrew Hunter, chairman of the Conservative Party's House of Commons committee on Northern Ireland, represents that standpoint. He is a trenchant supporter of ``the Union'' and casts serious doubt on the sincerity of the Irish Republican Army's Aug. 31 cease-fire.

The veteran statesman Enoch Powell goes much further. Northern Ireland, he has declared, should stay in the UK ``forever.''

But among the wider public there is a palpable sense of weariness engendered by a struggle that has gone on far too long, killed thousands of people, and ruined the lives of many more.

Richard Ingrams, a seasoned columnist, may have captured the developing mood when he called for a referendum on Northern Ireland in which all Britons could take part. Writing in the Sept. 18 issue of the Observer, he asked: ``If the Northern Irish can vote on whether they want to remain part of the United Kingdom, why should we, the British, not be allowed to decide whether we, in turn, want to go on having Northern Ireland as part of our country?''

The exhaustion, Mr. Ingrams reflects, can be traced to the disruption the Northern Ireland crisis has created. Millions of mainlanders are hoping that peace will bring an easing of tension in their own minds as much as in the streets of their towns and cities.

This reporter remembers - each time he visits Harrods, London's famous department store - the Saturday morning nine years ago when he drove away from the building minutes before a terrorist bomb exploded in the street outside, killing five and injuring 80.

Peace in Northern Ireland would lower tensions over a varied front. The Queen's Household Cavalry, in their polished brass and bearskin caps, would be able to parade between Buckingham Palace and Admiralty Arch without a police car trailing behind them.

Motorists entering London's financial district would drive unhindered to their destinations rather than be forced to thread their way through checkpoints set up to keep out the IRA. Throughout the country, shoppers would find that the bags they carry into stores are no longer routinely peered into by security officers.

Train travelers looking for litter bins to deposit trash on station platforms would actually find them. For years the bins have been banished, lest a terrorist leave a shrapnel timebomb in one of them and inflict terrible injuries on innocent bystanders.

In fact there have been thousands of nuisances, petty and large, to remind the mainland British that Northern Irish terrorism always has been likely to spill over and disturb their daily lives.

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