For now, Irish unity is a step too far

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The Independent Online
THIS MORNING in Belfast a Professor Torkel Opsahl of Oslo presents a wise report on what citizens of Northern Ireland think could be ways forward from the impasse in which they live - in Edmund Burke's phrase, 'that vast Serbonian bog into which whole armies have sunk'. A Citizens' Inquiry, published by the Lilliput Press in Dublin, runs to 400 pages. I hear Swift's sardonic laughter.

For it is benign folly to hope for a political solution in the short term. The recent talks failed; to reconvene them might be mild therapy for those involved, but is more likely to be an irritant. Neither John Hume nor Ian Paisley had anything new to offer each other. Each plays to his own gallery. Each trims his own boat: to move in any new direction would tear their parties apart.

First things first. Ordinary people clearly want compromise and movement, but the politicians can offer neither. This is hard to say for the author of In Defence of Politics - a secular sermon on the virtues of compromise - but after 20 years of following the Troubles closely, often walking and talking where few politicians go, four years ago I realised there are some situations where countries are so divided that leaders believe that any compromise means total defeat - indeed, loss of identity by their people. And preaching at them gets nowhere.

Part of the reason for this political paralysis is, unhappily, that unlike in South Africa, the situation is not bad enough to frighten both sides into historic compromises. Shame, discomfort and spasmodic terror are not as potent as fear of anarchy, racial civil war, utter breakdown. Hobbes was right that fear, not virtue, is the mother of peace.

The beginning of political wisdom will be both to give up moral rhetoric ('who is really in the right?' - both are, by their own ingrained assumptions) and to consider the nature of time. Changes in values follow generations, not a parliament's timetable. Above all we have to understand the fears of the actual Protestant majority and that they are now the frightened ones.

Everyone in the nationalist camp says that Irish unity is inevitable but - even Sinn Fein and the IRA aver - only with 'Protestant consent'. Not even John Hume, however, who says this devoutly four times a day, once in Derry, once in Strasbourg, once in Westminster and once in New York, has the least idea how to do this. My own party, Labour, has a policy that must have been invented with black humour by the aforesaid ghost of Dean Swift: 'Unity of Ireland with the consent of the North'. But the persuasive powers of Kevin McNamara MP (Labour's Northern Ireland spokesman) are as yet wisely untested in the Shankhill.

HMG claims to have no policy. It seeks to be the last honest broker. But even under Mrs Thatcher it pledged, in the Anglo-Irish Agreement, that if a majority in Northern Ireland voted for unity it would legislate to that effect. The Irish government equally rashly, or cynically, said the same. Leave aside that the North, even if democracy or divine intervention ever gave such a majority, would be more difficult to govern from Dublin than it is from London; how can this solemn assertion that the majority is only conditionally British be expected to put its understandable fears to rest?

Mea culpa. Like many I applauded the agreement in print, popular and learned, for its imaginative flexibility. One noticed that the unionist leaders were not consulted and were very cross, but would they not soon take up the dangled carrot: that powers of self-government would be returned to Stormont if both communities agreed? Well, they haven't and to be fair to the unionists, the SDLP seems to have lost interest in power-sharing unless the Republic is involved in the government of Northern Ireland.

The agreement has simply not worked. It has alienated Protestant political activists and given Mr Hume's followers the chimera of 'Give us unity in our time, oh John' rather than the unheroic compromises of power-sharing. I remember a time when Mr Hume would admit they overplayed their hand at Sunningdale; if they had not insisted on an 'Irish dimension', the power-sharing coalition might have survived.

The realistic hope for progress is to close the door on unity in this generation. The Irish government is not prepared to do anything practical, nor can Conservatives or Labour persuade our awkward fellow citizens to go quietly after negotiating ever so many helpful safeguards. Only power-sharing in the North with communal equality could create participative democracy, trust, tolerance and peace in Ulster. Can't the SDLP see that this must be a precondition for its aspirations? If people can work together for a generation, the border may mean less, or a confederal system with dual citizenship could be negotiable - but only from the security of being neither betrayed nor governed like a colony. Let us do what we can do in our time and leave the great question to the next generation.