Irish question, Euro answer : LEADING ARTICLE

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The Independent Online
When the Second World War ended, the pessimists thought that a lasting reconciliation between France and Germany was impossible. It seemed about as unlikely as a stable peace still appears to be between the two communities on the island of Ireland. France and Germany had fought three major wars in 75 years. As in Ulster, mutual hatreds were fuelled by bitter memories of atrocity and rivalry. There was good reason to believe that hostilities had ceased merely on a temporary basis, only to be restarted at some later date. But the two states confounded historical determinism. They gave up battling over which could dominate the other. Instead they signed up with other nations to a common project that would benefit everyone. They set aside questions of contested borders thatviolence had failed to resolve and opted for a peace underpinned by co-operation. The idea was that as each nation prospered through economic interdependence, the social and political tensions between them would gradually diminish.

This is the model now being offered to the Unionists and Nationalists on the island of Ireland. Twenty five years of killing - and a history of conflict going back centuries - provides ample evidence that there can be no lasting peace as long as there are losers in Northern Ireland, be they Roman Catholics or Protestants. Redrawing borders is no answer for two communities so physically enmeshed. Subjugation of one by another will not work.

The sketchy details of the draft Anglo-Irish joint framework document, leaked yesterday, offer an imaginative alternative akin to that which has bolstered peace in Europe for 40 years. Its underlying principle is that the two communities in Ireland would co-operate through a supranational forum, namely the European Union. If these two nations could enhance their prosperity together, then other differences might diminish. Progress might be slow, but nothing will be solved suddenly in Northern Ireland.

The European Union is well suited to its role. Its institutions are designed to facilitate consensus. Some of the areas in which Belfast and Dublin might co-operate - agriculture for example - are already under the jurisdiction of Brussels. The European Union provides financial help on both sides of the border. But the EU's chief virtue is that it is neither Great Britain nor the Republic of Ireland.

Yet it is hardly surprising that the proposals have caused a crisis. Any political change suggested for Ulster is inevitably interpreted as a sell-out of one side or the other. This time the Unionists suspect that the hidden agenda is a united Ireland.

They are wrong. These proposals no more envisage the creation of a united Ireland than an independent Ulster or continuation of the status quo. The objective is mutual recognition of two identities and the building a trust that will entrench peace.

The approach adopted in the draft framework document will be difficult for everyone to grasp initially. Some Republicans have yet to realise that unity is unobtainable. The Unionists are suspicious of any external power becoming involved in Northern Ireland's affairs. The UK political climate, which is so eroding confidence in all matters European, will surely not have helped to reassure them.

John Major now has the difficult task of leading opinion towards an innovative and imaginative proposal. It is ironic that at this moment the Prime Minister should be waving his Union Jack and pandering to his party's narrow nationalism. Even in his broadcast last night he felt unable to mention the European dimension. Events in Ireland should remind the Conservatives of what could be gained from an engaged, constructive approach to Europe.