Leading Article: Trapped in a fool's paradise

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The Independent Online
THERE is a fundamental imbalance in the talks between the constitutional parties in Northern Ireland, which resume today. The nationalist parties can call on the support and active involvement of members of the growing Catholic middle class. This gives them a flexibility and breadth of vision and experience that is denied the Protestant parties. The latter's officials and activists are, by and large, elderly, working class men, or clergymen whose theological training was extremely narrow.

The Unionist middle class has largely abandoned the political process, just as it has withdrawn from the Orange Order, which it once dominated. The two main loyalist parties, James Molyneaux's Ulster Unionists and Ian Paisley's Democratic Unionists, lack any significant base within the professional and business community. This was not always the case. Historically, the religious divide over-rode class antagonisms. The Unionist cause was presented by middle-class Protestants who commanded the automatic electoral support of Protestant working people. Since 1968, the former have withdrawn from public life and often speak with self-righteous contempt of those who remain active.

As we report today, the situation in Northern Ireland has certain obvious short-term advantages for the apolitical Protestant middle class. For its members, life can be seductively easy. One of those interviewed described the area as 'a paradise'. The bombings and the killings seldom impinge on the areas in which Northern Ireland's privileged Protestants live. Housing is cheap and education good; the countryside is beautiful, the cost of living low and the quality of life high. The province is subsidised by Westminster to an extent that makes it the envy of other areas of high unemployment within the United Kingdom. It is far from certain that these subventions would survive indefinitely after a generally acceptable solution to Northern Ireland's constitutional and security problems had been reached.

Direct rule has produced an environment that is attractive to many business people. They do not have to deal overmuch with local authorities, which can still be narrow-minded or bigoted. They turn instead to a small, accessible and highly professional civil service, and to politicians who are to be found much of the time in Belfast rather than in Whitehall or Westminster. However, the lack of devolved government adds to the political difficulties faced by the two constitutional Unionist parties. Without an elected assembly, there is nowhere for up-and-coming young Unionists of any class to cut their political teeth and no way in which they can earn an honest living from the pursuit of their calling. As a result, the ambitious and upwardly mobile turn their attention to other careers. This leaves the political stage to the tired, rigid - and probably unrepresentative - old guard.

The problem with the privileged areas occupied by Unionism's apolitical middle class is that they are in many respects a fool's paradise, maintained by British troops and British money. These can only be assumed to continue indefinitely provided the bloody stalemate also continues. Yet the long-term interest of Northern Ireland's commercial and professional people lies in a negotiated political solution that would enable industry and commerce to develop along more natural lines. The likelihood of such an outcome will be enhanced if those fastidious Unionists who have abandoned the political process re-enter the arena and argue their case with vigour.