After a long struggle, Ireland's claim to the North passes peacefully away

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An evil winter wind roared up O'Connnell Street in Dublin yesterday, whistling round the white columns of the General Post Office where Padraig Pearse proclaimed the rising against British rule on that fateful Easter Monday of 1916.

An evil winter wind roared up O'Connnell Street in Dublin yesterday, whistling round the white columns of the General Post Office where Padraig Pearse proclaimed the rising against British rule on that fateful Easter Monday of 1916.

This is sacred ground to some, for it was on these steps, where the columns are still marked with bullet holes from the ensuing battle, that Pearse proclaimed Ireland's war of liberation against centuries of foreign rule "in the name of God and of the dead generations from which she derives her nationhood".

And it was in the name and spirit of that famous "blood sacrifice" that more than 3,000 people died and tens of thousands were injured over the past 30 years in the unredeemed corner of the land known to every good nationalist as the "six counties".

But as Irish politicians, north and south, met yesterday near St Stephen's Green, to lay to rest those unquiet ghosts of 1916 by removing the Republic's claim to the North from the Irish constitution, it was as if Dublin and all Ireland had shrugged off the myth which, for a former generation at least, had near-sacred significance.

An irate crowd had gathered in the rain near the post office and, as they marched past the statue of the socialist rebel, James Larkin, his metal hands flung angrily out into the sky, I wondered if it was Articles 2 and 3 of the Irish constitution they had come to protest about. But they hadn't. They were protesting at the number of people killed working in the construction industry of Ireland's hell-for-leather boom economy.

Yes, everyone, it seems, had watched the signing ceremony of the peace deal on the television or listened to the radio. But Ulster is not for most Irish people what Kosovo is to Serbs. Not quite. And among younger people, it was the extra 50 pence tax on cigarettes in yesterday's budget, not the threat to Articles 2 and 3 of Eamon de Valera's 1937 constitution, which had them worried.

Many of the 20-and-under generation do not have the faintest idea that Ireland had or still has a territorial claim to the North, a fact I had to explain laboriously to 22-year-old Edmund Long. "Well, I'm from Wexford in the south-east," he said happily, satisfied that geography more than excused ignorance and lack of zeal.

"Sure, I heard they had dropped something," said Leonora Collins mysteriously, searching to recall what it might be. "From the constitution, Articles 2 and 3," I prodded tactfully, "the 1937 constitution, which lays claim to the whole island."

Suddenly she warmed to the theme, as if embarrassed and keen to make up for lost nationalism. "Right! I mean, my boyfriend is mental about the North, he'd go and fight there at the drop of a hat. Maybe the people who want to live under Britain should move over there. If I went to Britain I wouldn't expect to live under Irish laws, now would I?"

But Leonora's was the only fighting spirit I encountered in the streets of Dublin on that supposedly "historic" day, which had me wondering whether the Irish newspapers were quite right when they opined that 2 December would be remembered for ever.

Even "Pat", who served fruit and vegetables from his Moore Street market stall, was vague. "Pat" wouldn't give his real name because he had served six years in Portloaise jail for robbing a bank in an IRA funding operation."Ah well, we've all got to compromise," he said, all passion over Articles 2 and 3 apparently spent. "It's a step forwards..." "To what?" I asked. "Well, it's a step and that's the main thing."

And the weather-beaten women of Moore Street, rubbing their hands in the winter twilight behind their stacks of oranges and bananas, nodded in agreement. "Frankly, I don't give a shit," said one confidently, with a huge grin, but a woman called Margaret disagreed, saying it would be "nice for the people up there, going shopping at Christmas and all, in peace and no bombs". She knew nothing of Ireland's territorial claim to the North. "I've got two children in Derry," she said. "It was all religion at the bottom of it, and why should Protestants and Catholics be fighting now when they've got Muslims and every other religion up there in the North?"

"Getting rid of Article 41, about the special position of the Catholic Church, was much more important than 2 or 3," said Eunan Dolan, an off-duty policeman in his forties. "I was brought up singing Four Green Fields," he said, humming a bar from the famous old folk song that laments mother Ireland's loss of the "green field" of Ulster. "But there's no point in having unity if people don't want it."

Like most Dubliners, an astonishing level of ignorance about the North (related to the fact that many have never been there) feeds mushy general conviction that nothing has been lost over the constitutional amendments because "one day", "some day", "not in our lifetime", the north and the south will merge. Like a trip to a state-of-the art dentist, the extraction of the Brits will be painless for all concerned.

"The constitutional claim could not be enforced anyway," Eunan added. "It was like Argentina claiming the Falklands. The demography is moving our way. I heard that 80 per cent of primary school children in the north are Catholics these days. They're going to grow up nationalists. That's what's going to redraw the border in the end."

"They're integrating the youth," said Pat, the ex-bank robber-cum-fruit-and-veg seller, who said he wasn't even sure he much liked Northern nationalists anyway. "They're so chippy." Odd that, I thought, coming from an IRA man.

Back at the GPO, 73-year-old Paddy O'Brien from Tipperary was waiting under those forbidding columns for his friend, Ed O'Shea. Younger people in Ireland invariably say that nationalism is the preserve of the old, but Paddy was having nothing of it.

"National unity doesn't mean anything to the ordinary person," he said. "It may have been important to de Valera," he said, waving an arm at the bullet holes in the columns of the Post Office, "but we don't want any more animosity. I've got relatives in the North and they have intermarried with Protestants. They get on well. All that matters is that we live happily together. I go up there. They are all good people.

"If Ireland comes together it will be because of the economy. You know, I heard that Ireland is going to rebuild all its fishing fleet. If we gave the job to the northerners, asked them to build a fleet for the whole of Ireland, now wouldn't that be nice? That would be unity."