South of the Border: What price would the people of the Irish Republic pay for peace? Brian Cathcart reports

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Visiting Belfast recently, a Dublin businessman was surprised to see his company's products in the shops. The firm had ceased distributing in Northern Ireland years ago.

The explanation was simple. The company's United Kingdom agent was importing the goods from the Republic of Ireland and then shipping some of them back to Northern Ireland for sale there. What could havebeen a short road journey had become a freight operation taking several days and involving two sea crossings.

The story illustrates the way in which Ireland is divided by more than a line on a map. Southern producers often overlook the northern market, partly because their salesmen do not like going there, and retailers in the North do not see the absurdity of such a long line of supply; Belfast consumers, presumably, pay the price. On both sides, people are looking in opposite directions.

We have become used to the idea that the Irish of the South are closely involved in the affairs of the North, that bonds of history and geography tie the two together, however reluctantly or uncomfortably. The close involvement of the Irish government in the present peace process symbolises this - Albert Reynolds, the Irish prime minister, now seems to be meeting John Major once a week. Yet, to a degree that can surprise even them, southerners are remote from the North.

Some of the most striking evidence of this comes from the ostensibly modern and pragmatic worlds of business and communications. Dublin and Belfast, the two biggest cities on the island and just 100 miles apart, are not linked by so much as a dual carriageway - there are motorways in both parts of the island, but they go off in quite different directions. The rickety rail service between the two cities takes more than two hours, where it should take 90 minutes. You have to dial 12 or 13 digits to make a call across the border, and there is less telephone traffic between Dublin and Belfast than between Dublin and Cork, although Belfast is twice Cork's size.

Trade between the two parts of the island is feeble. The North exports 6 per cent of its manufactured goods to the South, while the South sends just 3 per cent of its output to the North. If the island were all one market and the Troubles did not exist, those figures would almost certainly be more than three times as high.

A similar division exists in the mind. At its most extreme is the view of the Dubliner in the street last week who said: 'The North? They should take all that Semtex, put it on the border and blow it up. Then they should tow the whole lot away to sea and pull the plug out.'

In a much milder, and more telling, form it found expression in the reaction to the IRA's Warrington bombing among people in the Republic. Emotion poured forth in a manner rarely seen; there were spontaneous demonstrations of sympathy in Dublin, and the Irish President, Mary Robinson, attended a memorial service in Warrington. Northerners were offended that southerners could make such a fuss about one bomb in Britain when so many had died in similar outrages in Northern Ireland.

Austin Currie, once an SDLP leader in the North and now an opposition member of the Dublin parliament, explains: 'People in the Republic, particularly around Dublin, have more experience of life in Britain than in the North. They may have worked in Britain, have sons or daughters there, and they know it's a normal society where this thing happened - a normal society like theirs.'

And he is right. Despite a supposed colonial legacy of resentment, people in the South do know Britain better than Northern Ireland and often feel a closer affinity with British people. Unless they live in a border area, they can usually see no reason to cross the border and plenty of reasons not to. An economist who does travel up there told me how he hated passing through the military border posts: 'It's appalling. It reminds me of visiting Austria before the Iron Curtain came down and seeing the border with Hungary.'

I spoke to a class of Dublin sixth-formers, many of whom had visited the North, and the general impression was unfavourable. 'People never speak to you or smile at you like they do here,' said one. 'They seem to be wary about opening their mouths,' said another. 'It's a bit frightening; you step out of a door and trip over a soldier.'

A senior Irish government official, who is close to the 'peace process' talks with Britain, said last week: 'I took my family there on holiday for the very first time this year, and they really didn't want to go. But they were completely staggered: by the sheer beauty of the place, by the neat hedgerows and the good roads, by the warm welcome we got everywhere.'

The official figures show that 95,000 residents of the Republic spent one night or more on holiday in Northern Ireland last year and the trend is upward. To put that figure in context, there are 3.5 million people in the Republic and most of them could drive to the North between breakfast and lunch. To go anywhere else they must take a plane or a ferry.

And it is not as though there is nothing to do when they get to the North. The cost of living is noticeably lower, the coastal scenery is spectacular, the shops are different and the historical sites exceptionally well preserved.

This is not just a matter of the Troubles. North and South have had distinctive characters since the 'Plantation' of Ulster with English and Scottish settlers in the 17th century, and even the 'native Irish' who remained in the North were changed by their interaction with the newcomers. When partition came in 1920-22, both sides took stands which tended to emphasise rather than minimise those differences. The ruling northern Unionists spurned contact with the South so far as was possible, and successive Dublin governments responded in kind. Many Irish governments had no policy on the North beyond the ritual demand for an end to partition.

Eamon de Valera, who dominated political life in the South for half a century, actively pursued policies likely to alienate northern Unionists, attempting to stamp on his new country a Gaelic, rural culture. He showed little interest in the fate of the northern Catholics, even as they became victims of systematic discrimination.

The result was two countries sharing a small island but with their backs firmly turned on each other. This had nothing to do with race, although John Taylor, the Ulster Unionist MP, suggested last week that it did. 'We in Northern Ireland are not Irish,' he said. 'We do not jig at crossroads, speak Gaelic, play GAA (Gaelic sports) etc.' People in the South did not know whether to laugh or cry. No, the gulf between North and South is not a matter of race, but one of stubborn wish and habit.

AND YET that is only half the story. As northern Unionists such as Mr Taylor would be quick to ask, why, if the South has no interest in the North, does it lay claim to it?

Articles Two and Three of the Irish constitution declare: 'The national territory consists of the whole island of Ireland, its islands, and the territorial seas', and: 'Pending the reintegration of the national territory, and without prejudice to the right of the Parliament and Government established by this Constitution to exercise jurisdiction over the whole of that territory, the laws enacted by that Parliament shall have the like area and application as the laws of Saorstat Eireann (the 26-county Irish Free State) and the like extra-territorial effect.'

For all the generations since 1922, Irish children have taken in with their mothers' milk the notion that the border is artificial and temporary and that Ireland will one day be united. Then, and only then, will come the true culmination of the centuries of struggle for liberation, and then, too, the country will be free to achieve its full potential.

For many years, to question this was utterly taboo, a negation of the sacrifices of patriotic forbears and of the birthright of generations to come. Even now most Irish people say they still believe that unity will happen. An Irish Times poll last month found that 39 per cent of those asked believed they would see Irish unity within 25 years and 52 per cent thought it would come in 50 to 100 years.

In one sense, this aspiration has been strengthened in the years of the Troubles, for it is seen by many as a guarantee for the northern Catholics. To these people, who include many northern Catholics themselves, it is the leash by which Britain and the Unionists are restrained. They say that to remove the claim to the North would be to abandon these 'sundered brethren' just as the Palestinians were abandoned in 1967.

In every other sense, however, the rationale behind the aspiration has been stripped away. For one thing, much of Irish history has been rewritten in the past 40 years, and now appears as something richer and more complex than a succession of 'risings' against the occupying oppressor. Some of the patriot heroes and their exploits have, in the same process, come to appear crankish and squalid.

More pressingly, the IRA campaign has turned many in the South against republicanism in any form, historic or otherwise. They have come to question whether they want anything to do with northern Catholics, let alone the intractable Protestants. As Austin Currie puts it: 'The Provos have done more to turn people here off Northern Ireland than the Unionists ever did.'

Southerners want to distance themselves from the whole thing. Several Dublin people complained to me last week that they were fed up having to explain to foreigners when they were on holiday abroad that they did not come from a country of bombs and bullets, that that was somewhere different.

The practicalities of unity have also altered. If Northern Ireland had a relatively vibrant and advanced industrial economy before the Troubles, it is now a basket-case. Dublin economists liken it to East Germany, the Mezzogiorno of southern Italy and even Albania.

In 1960 there were 184,000 people employed in manufacturing in the North, and 175,000 in the South. In 1990 the figures were 110,000 for the North and 232,000 for the South. There has been no big expansion of the northern service sector to take up the slack; if people there are in work it is more likely than not they are in the public sector.

The annual British 'subvention' to Northern Ireland - the difference between tax revenues and public spending, exclusive of security costs - is more than pounds 2.5bn. This covers welfare benefits and funds many jobs directly and many more indirectly. The subvention accounts for 30 per cent of all the money flowing into Northern Ireland. One study conducted in the North suggested that if peaceful unification were achieved tomorrow and the subvention withdrawn, taxes in the island as a whole would have to rise by 15 per cent to make up the difference.

'It just couldn't happen that way,' says John Bradley, of the Economic and Social Research Institute in Dublin. 'The economy has taken 25 years to destroy; it would take 25 years to rebuild.

'There would have to be a programme of reconstruction, with financial guarantees from outside. The UK, the EU and the US would have to ask themselves how badly they want the violence to end and how much they are prepared to pay for it.'

But even the thought of any tax increase is enough to frighten people in the South, who already carry a heavy burden. The same opinion poll last month which found them still hoping for unity asked whether they would be prepared to pay higher taxes to achieve it: 75 per cent said no.

For whatever reasons, it is beyond doubt that recent years have seen a steady dilution of the aspiration to unity.

Albert Reynolds is the leader of Fianna Fail, the party founded by De Valera and led recently by Charles Haughey. Nowhere in mainstream Irish politics is the commitment to the goal of unity stronger than in Fianna Fail.

Yet last month Mr Reynolds told his party conference: 'People have democratic rights and we cannot predetermine for them, without their consent, the political circumstances under which they'll be governed - now, or in the future . . . I believe I speak for almost all the people of this state when I say that while we still continue to strive for a united Ireland based on agreement and on consent freely given, we have no interest in forced unity.'

More dramatically, Mr Reynolds has made a further commitment. As part of the proposed joint declaration with Mr Major, he is prepared to give a written commitment to hold a referendum to amend Articles Two and Three of the constitution. This will probably not remove all reference to the aspiration to unity, but will introduce new language to make clear that such unity requires majority consent in the North.

This point has been reached slowly and by stages, but it represents a tidal change in Irish politics. All the other leading parties already support such a course, and opinion in Dublin is unanimous that with the support of the Fianna Fail - and provided it is part of a wider settlement - such a referendum would be carried.

Unionists say that Dublin should receive no praise for abandoning a claim it should never have made in the first place, but that is too grudging. The citizens of the Republic, as the poll showed, still hanker for unity, even if they recognise, in private, that their hope is not realistic.

And the recognition is still only a private one. Politicians and officials who talk about it are usually not prepared to be quoted. They fear an atavistic reaction in which they might be portrayed as un-Irish. Such voices are already there. Last week I heard one old Fianna Fail trouper describe Mr Reynolds as 'nothing better than a watered-down Unionist'.

IT IS difficult to get the balance right here. People in the Republic are more closely involved in the affairs of Northern Ireland than people in Britain. They hear and read more news about events there and they have always shared some institutions, such as the churches. But that involvement is often less close, less sincere and less well-informed than southerners are prepared to admit, even to themselves.

As so often, the past still has a power. When you have grown up complaining - often rightly - of the activities of the British and the Unionists in the North, it is hard suddenly to turn your back on what you have always regarded as the only ultimate solution to those wrongs.

Austin Currie believes that one reason the present peace process has been embraced with such enthusiasm in the South is because it offers a unique way out of this dilemma.

John Hume, the SDLP leader who, with Sinn Fein's Gerry Adams, set it moving, commands extraordinary respect and admiration in the South. When Mr Reynolds mentioned Mr Hume's name in his party conference address, he was interrupted by several minutes of rapturous applause. The Irish Times remarked that among the Fianna Fail rank and file, Mr Hume has 'the stature of a demi-god', and he is no less popular among the population at large. If Mr Hume says it is time to retreat from Articles Two and Three, then it must be all right.

By the same token, the involvement of Mr Adams reassures a distinct class of people whom Mr Currie, in his mellow county Tyrone accent, calls the 'snakin' regarders'. These are the people who say: 'I have no truck at all with the IRA, but I have to admit I have a snakin' (sneaking) regard for the way they go about their business.'

'All the snakin' regarders down here are in favour of the peace process,' says Mr Currie with a laugh.

Optimism is high in Dublin about peace, and the prospect is turning thoughts towards the future. The awareness is growing of what could be achieved if the violence ends. The Irish Business and Employers' Confederation is engaged in a joint project with the Belfast CBI to build up business links. They want better roads and rail services, and they see a good chance of increasing trade by between 10 and 15 per cent every year for five years. Tourism would also benefit enormously on both sides of the border, and there would naturally be savings in security costs - Dublin estimates that it spends Ir pounds 240m a year on army and police activity related to the violence in the North, which is more per capita than Britain does.

And that would just be the beginning. To a southern eye, these might well come to seem more attractive than the prospect, which would inevitably be associated with a united Ireland, of having to find room for northern Unionists in the Dublin parliament.

(Photograph omitted)