Protestants left isolated as roles are reversed

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An extraordinary reversal of fortunes has taken place since civil rights campaigners went on the march in 1968. They took to the streets because they felt the political processes had failed them, leaving them neglected, isolated and friendless.

Today that description applies with uncanny accuracy to a large proportion of the Protestant population. A quarter of a century of violence, civil unrest and constitutional uncertainty has made worse the Unionist insecurity which led to partition and discrimination.

The violence which since 1968 has been a constant feature of life in Northern Ireland has masked enormous changes - social, economic, demographic and psychological. Many of these have not been seen by Unionists as beneficial and have increased their sense of siege.

The Catholic population has increased from one-third to more than 40 per cent. Upwardly mobile Catholics now hold important posts in areas of life that were once Protestant preserves. John Hume's Social Demorati and Labour Party wields great influence in London, Dublin, Brussels and Washington. The IRA, once something of a joke, has evolved into one of the world's most brutally efficient terrorist groups.

The falling Protestant population has drifted towards Belfast and the east, increasing segregation and leaving a few 'fortress towns' amid the rising Catholic tide in the west. The Protestant middle class keeps its collective head down, despising politics and seeking consolation in its high standard of living. Many of the brightest youngsters go to university in Britain, and do not return.

Unionists are doubtful about Britain's ultimate intentions, worrying that the British might pull out and leave them to their fate. They see London and Dublin drawing closer together. The alienation has resulted in an alarming rise in loyalist violence.

As one Protestant clergyman put it: 'I detect a growing feeling that the British government would like out. We feel that probably we are an embarrassment to them. If they could get out decently, with pride and world respect, they would do it.' On the Catholic side there are two starkly different pictures. An expanding middle class and upper working class has escaped from the ghettos and is prospering under British rule. There are still areas of employment considered out of bounds, but for the most part the middle class now has the civil rights demanded by the marchers in 1968.

This contrasts sharply with the experience of a large section of the Catholic working- class. On all the major social and economic indicators, Catholics are worse off than Protestants: more likely to be unemployed, to experience long-term unemployment, to live in public housing, to live in overcrowded conditions and to suffer disability and ill- health. In other words, the reforms and improvements of the past quarter-century have provided many with a ladder out of the ghetto: but the ghettos themselves are still there, with conditions which help provide the IRA's endless supply of recruits.

The IRA itself, together with its political wing Sinn Fein, may be at a crossroads. The key hope is that the republicans have come to realise that Unionists have their national rights.

The Hume-Adams talks will provide a crucial test of whether republicans cling to an absolutist position or are trying to come to terms with the idea of Unionism. If this initiative fails, the bleak prediction must be of an indefinite continuation of the present violent stalemate.

The Unionist-nationalist divide is the kernel of the matter in Northern Ireland but it has been obvious, since the events of October 1968, that the problem has many dimensions. Some of these have themselves changed: tEhe south, for example, is busy modernising itself and revising tTHER write errorraditional attitudes.

And at the core is Britain, which has been exercising an increasingly reluctant sovereignty over this troubled area. Britain is forever in two minds about Ireland: never quite letting go, but never quite committed, either, to staying forever.

Some elements of the Establishment seem to favour eventual disengagement, while others envisage staying, but neither tendency seems strong enough to settle the matter one way or the other. As a result, Northern Ireland seems fated to remain in a state of perpetual uncertainty.