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Two Neighbors Snarled In Paradox...Try To Unravel It, Thread By Thread

International Spotlight On Ireland


The scene is a Dublin bar noted for traditional Irish music. A balladeer is singing of an island people separated from neighboring England by a centuries-old troubled history--and the sea.

Long may it roam between England and me,

Thank God we're surrounded by water.

The audience response is enthusiastic and good-humored. Particularly so among a group of English customers, whose good manners prevent them from mentioning that millions of Irish people have crossed over the Irish sea to find employment, the good life--even parliamentary voting rights--on the neighboring island. It's just one of those paradoxes that pockmark the relationship, not only between the two islands but between the people of Ireland itself.

Take the million Protestants who make up two-thirds of the population of Northern Ireland. They pledge loyalty to the British crown, protest they are British, not Irish, and want no part of talk of a unified Ireland. That has been the case since the island was partitioned in 1922 when, after an armed insurrection, the dominantly Catholic and nationalist population of southern Ireland won independence from Britain. The mainly Protestant and loyalist people of Northern Ireland opted to retain their links with Britain. And so it has remained, despite the Irish government's controversial 1937 constitutional claims on Northern Ireland and the 72-year campaign of violence waged by the Irish Republican Army in support of a united Ireland.

In the wake of the IRA's recently declared cessation of violence, hopes are high on all sides that a more stable relationship can develop between these two communities sundered by centuries of distrust and religious and political strife. In fact, a large amount of cooperation already exists.

For instance, in the mainstream sports--rugby football, hockey, boxing, horse-racing, show-jumping--North and South field a united team under the green, white, and orange tricolor of the Irish Republic. Whenever Ireland takes on England in any of these sports, many of the most vocal, committed, and nationalistic supporters of the Irish team are those from the loyalist tradition in the North. An exception is soccer, which still operates under separate bodies.

Separate economic development, education, and tourism boards pursue investment and visitors, but there is close cooperation on official and unofficial levels. And there's similar cooperation between rival companies, North and South, and in broadcasting, culture, and the arts. That cooperation also spills over into the European Parliament at Strasbourg. Northern Ireland's three members--including the foghorn-voiced Democratic Unionist leader Reverend Ian Paisley--support their 15 opposite numbers from the Irish Republic when island interests coincide.

On a much more basic level, millions of Irish nationals resident in Britain and thousands of British nationals living in Ireland enjoy full voting rights in the local and national elections of their host country.

A unique group of 25 members from each of the two nations' Parliaments both reflects the tensions and showcases the cooperation. Known as the British-Irish Inter-Parliamentary Group, it has been meeting twice a year since February, 1990--as improbable an assembly as an Israeli-Syrian equivalent.

Its origins lie in a 1980 study initiated by then-British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher and her Irish equivalent, Charles J. Haughey. In its four years, it has produced a series of high-powered reports on questions ranging from freight, transport, education, tourism, the European Union, and environmental concerns--as well as more contentious issues such as extradition and the transfer of prisoners in British and Irish jails.

Membership is allotted to all parties, though the two seats reserved for Northern Ireland Unionists have remained empty because they refuse to participate. The all-party membership reflects the importance both governments attach to the group's work. Among senior figures on the British side are ex-Defense Secretary Thomas J. King and ex-Home Secretary Lord Merlyn Rees--both former Secretaries of State for Northern Ireland. The Irish side includes two former Foreign Ministers, Peter Barry and Gerry Collins.

The hope is that the Unionists will now agree to participate and fill the two symbolic "empty chairs" reserved for them.EDITED BY JOHN E. PLUENNEKE By Mike Burns in Dublin

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