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Politics

Two Irelands, One Europe

20 October 2002

Two Irelands, One Europe

by Gwynne Dyer

Fewer than three million voters in the westernmost member of the European Union, the Republic of Ireland, have just torn down the barrier they erected against the entry of ten far poorer countries, mostly in Eastern Europe, into the rich man’s club of Europe. Saturday’s referendum, reversing Ireland’s ‘No’ vote to EU enlargement last year, was a triumph of enlightened self-interest over tribalism and selfishness. Pity that the Northern Irish can’t act like grown-ups too.

The peace process in Northern Ireland has not completely collapsed, but on 14 October the British government suspended the locally elected power-sharing government in Belfast and resumed direct rule from London. It’s the fourth ‘suspension’ since the Good Friday Agreement of 1998 ended the long guerilla war by the Irish Republican Army against the British authorities and the pro-British Protestant majority in Northern Ireland, but this one may last a long time.

Nobody wants a resumption of the killing that cost over 3,000 lives in thirty years of low-level war, but there is no obvious road back to cooperation between the Protestant parties and the Catholic minority. A new election is scheduled for next May, but on current trends it will virtually eliminate the non-sectarian parties and strengthen the hard-liners on both sides.

In truth, only half the Loyalist (Protestant) voters ever backed the Good Friday Agreement, for many feared that sharing power with the Catholics was the top of a slippery slope leading to eventual union with the overwhelmingly Catholic republic to the south. Some simply weren’t reconciled to sharing power with Catholics after generations of being top dog, and most deeply distrusted the IRA and its political front, Sinn Fein. Nor did the IRA move fast enough to build Protestant support for the deal by getting rid of its weapons.

By early this year the Protestant paramilitaries were attacking Catholics again, and probably no more than 10 percent of Loyalist voters would have voted for a continuation of power-sharing. In September, the Ulster Unionist Council ordered the Protestant parties to withdraw from the government by January unless the IRA completely disbanded — a deliberately unrealistic demand — and it looked as though the Protestants would get the blame for destroying the peace process. But then the IRA snatched defeat from the jaws of victory.

Senior IRA cadres were arrested in Colombia and charged with teaching bomb-making techniques to drug-dealing guerillas; an IRA spy network was caught gathering information for future attacks (including the home addresses of prison officers) in the heart of Belfast’s power-sharing institutions; and five suspected IRA men were caught in the Republic with masks, fake Irish police uniforms, a sledgehammer and two-way radios in what Irish authorities said was a foiled hijack operation. With Sinn Fein unable to distance itself enough from the IRA’s actions, the British government had the excuse to pull the plug on the Belfast power-sharing executive before the Unionists did it.

The US government, once a helpful mediator in the conflict, came out strongly against the IRA, with White House spokesman Richard Haass saying they have to “make it clear they have turned the corner and put paramilitarism behind them.” But the truth is that both communities have betrayed the Agreement, and are drifting back towards a war that neither wants.

What a striking contrast with the Republic, where the voters rose above their own parochial obsessions in last Saturday’s referendum and voted by a resounding 63%-37% majority to ratify the Nice treaty. All 14 other EU members had already ratified the treaty that authorises the EU to take in up to ten new members — a decision scheduled to be finalised this December – but Ireland’s constitution requires a referendum on such issues, and last year Irish voters said ‘No’.

It was an unexpected outcome on a very low turn-out, but it threatened to bring the whole delicate process of European integration to a grinding halt. Leaders of the ten candidate countries (Poland, the Czech Republic, Slovakia, Hungary, Slovenia, Lithuania, Latvia, Estonia, Cyprus and Malta) wrote an open letter imploring the Irish people to recognise the historic importance of the Nice treaty and heal “a century of (European) pain and suffering.” So Ireland scheduled a second referendum and plunged back into the argument.

Ranged against the Nice treaty was a motley coalition of Sinn Fein supporters who claimed to worry about Ireland’s neutrality though they also maintain their own private army, the IRA; Catholic fundamentalists who fear that the EU means more liberal abortion laws; racists who oppose immigration from EU countries; farmers reluctant to share their fat EU subsidies with struggling Eastern European countries; and Greens and hard-left ideologues who see the EU as a capitalist, anti-environmental club. In favour of Nice, as it turned out, was almost everybody else.

The worry was that floating voters would seize the opportunity to vent their anger against Prime Minister Bertie Ahern’s Fianna Fail government, beset by corruption charges and a falling economy, and vote down the Nice treaty again in order (as ‘Irish Times’ columnist Fintan O’Toole put it) “to give a good kicking to an awful government.” But the opposition Labour Party, in particular, worked hard to help voters distinguish between the referendum and an election. ‘Hold your fire,’ one of their posters urged. ‘Fianna Fail can wait. Europe can’t.’

In the end, at the second time of asking, Irish voters — far more of them, this time — delivered the right, generous, grown-up answer. It was a great defeat for tribalism, isolationism and wallowing in bad old history: all the things that still bedevil the unhappy North.

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To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 3, 5 and 11. (“Nobody…sides”; “By early…victory”; and “The worry…can’t”)