A lie that clings and burns: The essence of the problem in Ulster is that no one really wants it, says Geoffrey Wheatcroft

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VIEWED from the outside, the Ulster question may look like an international territorial dispute of a kind with which European history is all too familiar. The same piece of territory, Northern Ireland, is claimed by two sovereign states, the United Kingdom and the Irish Republic.

That is the appearance. In reality, the essence of the problem is that nobody wants Ulster. It may seem perverse to say that when so much blood has been shed by the IRA and loyalist terrorists, but these are the hooligans on the terraces at a match neither side wants to win.

The British don't want Ulster. Sir Patrick Mayhew, Northern Ireland Secretary, has said, perhaps rather too often, that the British have 'no selfish motive' for staying there. He even told the German newspaper Die Zeit that we would get out 'with a kiss of the hand' (mit dem Handkuss - with pleasure) if we could. Given the delicacy of the situation and the fears of the Unionists, this may not have been the wisest of things to say out loud.

And yet it is no more than the truth. The British have no economic motive for staying in Ulster; very much the opposite now that it costs the Treasury more than pounds 3bn a year. They have no strategic motive. And they have no emotional motive. For centuries, political Protestantism was one of the driving forces of the British, giving them an instinctive sympathy with Ulster. That has completely gone.

Harder to grasp, but more important, is the truth that the Irish don't want Ulster either. That, likewise, sounds perverse, given the irredentist Articles 2 and 3 of the Irish Constitution, and the part that a 'united Ireland' plays in the rhetoric of Irish nationalism - the nationalism of Fianna Fail and Dublin as well as of Sinn Fein and the Falls Road. But 'part' is just the word. In the political drama of the Republic, reunification plays a distinctive role: a goal that must always be pursued - but never attained.

Behind this lies a complex of facts and feelings. Ulster is a burden. Three billion pounds a year is bad enough for the British tax- payer but represents something like a third of the total tax revenue of the Republic. Besides which, the southern Irish have a semi-conscious sense that Ulster is different, maybe even that Ulstermen - Catholic and Protestant - have more in common with one another than the Catholics do with the people of the south (and than the Protestants do with the British).

Even that is not the whole explanation. The argument that the Irish don't really want unification is sometimes disputed. Having often said it myself, I wasn't quite sure why I did. That was until I read Ireland 1912-1985, the work of history by Professor J J Lee of Cork University. There, the secret is revealed in one throwaway line.

As Mr Lee points out, the new Irish state was coeval with other new states elsewhere in Europe. Those were all beset with communal conflicts, based on language or religion or ethnicity, often with disastrous results. The stories of Yugoslavia and Czechoslovakia speak for themselves. The one exception was Ireland. And why? Because 'partition now saved the South from the most explosive internal problems subverting new states,' Lee says, 'by the simple device of exporting them to the North'.

The most remarkable fact about the 26-county Free State or Republic since 1922 has been its social stability and political tranquillity. No public figure as been assassinated since Kevin O'Higgins in 1927, and in the past 25 years, little of the Troubles in the North have spilled over the border. That could not possibly have been achieved with a million Ulster Protestants forcibly incorporated into the Irish state.

Indeed, that truth has sometimes been implicitly recognised by Irish republicans. Faced with the intractibility of the Ulster problem, Eamon de Valera several times suggested that the ultimate answer might have to be a 'transfer of population', the Protestants returning to the British mainland whence their ancestors had come.

More recently, an IRA man, asked whether he really thought a million Protestants could be bombed into a united Ireland, replied logically enough: 'Maybe they can be bombed out of it.' Short of that, it is scarcely too much to say that partition was the best thing that ever happened to southern Ireland.

The trouble is that the Irish Republic cannot openly recognise this truth. It cannot enforce its claim to Ulster without destroying itself physically, but it cannot renounce that claim without destroying itself morally.

All countries are nourished by what, early this century, the Italian prime minister, Giovanni Giolitti, called 'beautiful national legends'. The political culture of the Republic is permeated with these legends.

Article 2 of the Constitution does nor merely aspire to unity, it claims actual jurisdiction over the whole island. At the time de Valera drafted the Constitution, one of his senior civil servants, J J McElligott, wondered whether it wasn't vitiated 'by stating at the outset what will be described, and with some justice, as a fiction'.

But then it is not the only fictional article of de Valera's Constitution. Another declares Irish Gaelic is the 'first national language' of the country. In fact, fewer than one Irish person in 200 now speaks Gaelic as a daily tongue. Yet to acknowledge the sad truth that the language is now to all intents dead, would be to cut the beautiful national legend to the quick.

So it would be to acknowledge formally that Northern Ireland is not part of the 'national territory', and will not become so until its people freely want to. As it is, removing the Articles from the Constitution could only be done by referendum. Albert Reynolds, the Irish prime minister, has said it is by no means certain that such a referendum would be passed. Despite an opinion poll for the Irish Times last week which found that the majority of people in the Republic would support dropping their country's constitutional claim on the province, I tend to agree.

The Irish are caught in a bind by their history and their patriotic mythology. They can't live without it, and yet they can't live with it (or up to it). More than 10 years ago, Conor Cruise O'Brien wrote of his country and his countrymen that 'our ideology, in relation to what we actually are and want, is a lie. It is a lie that clings to us and burns, like the shirt of Nessus.' It burns still.

(Photograph omitted)