High-risk initiatives recently launched by Britain and Ireland offer the best opportunity in years to achieve peaceful political progress in British-ruled Northern Ireland, in the view of Irish Prime Minister Garret FitzGerald.
Just months after being seriously at odds with each other over the hunger strike by convicted Irish nationalist terrorists in Northern Ireland's Maze Prison, Britain and Ireland now "are both clearly on the same path" in their approach to the Ulster problem, FitzGerald said in his first American newspaper interview since taking office six months ago.
With the hunger strike and much of the rest of the prison protest over, British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher's government is launching a major initiative to establish limited home rule in Northern Ireland. FitzGerald described it as the first "serious attempt of this kind in five or six years."
He endorsed the strategy of Thatcher's Northern Ireland secretary, James Prior, who is seeking to persuade Ulster political leaders to "reluctantly accept" an imposed British compromise between Protestant insistence on unfettered majority rule and demands by the Roman Catholic minority for a greatly disproportionate share of power in the province.
Despite the hardening of sectarian attitudes in Northern Ireland because of the hunger strike and a subsequent wave of Provisional Irish Republican Army terrorism, FitzGerald said surveys there continue to indicate that "public opinion has never been as closed to the idea of finding some kind of compromise as the attitudes of some Ulster political leaders would suggest."
"Conditions are probably more favorable for that now than they have been in years," he argued. "People have had a very long period of direct rule by London , almost 10 years now, and they are looking for some way to regain control over their local affairs."
"Most politicians, and indeed even some of those who express themselves in a somewhat more intransigent way, might be willing to have imposed on them something they would never demand if asked their opinions first," FitzGerald said, echoing Prior's own rationale for his strategy.
"But obviously," FitzGerald added, "whatever emerged would have to be very carefully judged so as to be reluctantly acceptable to both sides."
FitzGerald said he believes that political risks he is taking "for the sake of Northern Ireland" have attracted some support from Ulster Protestant unionists, so long as the Irish and British initiatives appeared to them to be improving Irish-Ulster relations and economic cooperation rather than leading to eventual Irish unification.
FitzGerald has family ties on both sides of the Irish-Ulster border, but both his Catholic father and Protestant mother were ardent Irish nationalists who fought in the 1916 Irish uprising against the British. He is a large, pudgy, curly-haired man who speaks softly but rapidly and has capitalized politicially on a sincere, soft-hearted "nice guy" image. He has believed, despite the frequently stated skepticism of critics, that his background and personality enable him to bridge nationalist-unionist suspicions and deal effectively with both sides.
FitzGerald emphasized that the Irish and British government "share the strong conviction that no solution of the relationship between the north and south of Ireland can or should be imposed without the consent of a majority of the people in the north." But he said this is still not understood by many Ulster unionists wary of being forced into a united Ireland or by Americans and other outsiders with "a very simplistic perception that the problem could be resolved if the British just upped and left."
FitzGerald's most important initiative has been a campaign to reform Ireland's constitution by removing its ban on divorce and its unconditional territorial claims to neighboring Northern Ireland. FitzGerald has said he is aiming to modernize Irish society by lessening the constitutional strength of Catholic sectarianism and to improve relations between Ireland and Ulster's Protestant community.
He said this should not be seen by Ulster's Protestant British unionist majority or by its Catholic Irish minority as an attempt to produce rapid progress toward some ultimate solution such as a united Ireland. Instead, he said, he is seeking "to remove an obstacle to the evolution of a political solution" over time.
"Any expectation of early political change would be both unrealistic and potentially damaging in our relations with the unionist community in Northern Ireland," FitzGerald said. "By removing this obstacle we can only hope to have a new relationship between the unionist community and the nationalist community and proceed from there, knowing this can be only one element in any solution.
"But it is the one thing we can do ourselves after some decades of talking about what other people should do," he added. "In seeking change, either in British policy, the direction of which has been unhelpful at times, or in Northern Ireland, our position is greatly weakened if people can say, 'You aren't even prepared yourselves to make change.' At least we will have removed that obstacle."
FitzGerald has ordered a group of legal experts headed by Ireland's attorney general to study the possible constitutional reforms. He said they will report back by next summer, after which his government will frame final proposals and submit them to a national referendum.
FitzGerald acknowledged he does not yet have majority support among voters for the constitutional changes, but he argued that he can create such a majority with his campaign. Since his initial speeches on the subject on radio and in parliament, FitzGerald said, opposition had decreased from 65 to 40 percent in the most recent opinion poll.
FitzGerald has been helped by the absence of strong opposition from Ireland's Catholic Church. It was to win the church hierarchy's approval of Irish independence from Britain that the divorce ban and a since-repealed guarantee of a "special position" for the church in Ireland were originally written into the constitution.
Cardinal Tomas O'Fiaich, the Catholic primate of Ireland, said in a recent radio interview it appeared that divorce would be legalized within the next five or 10 years. Despite its disapproval of this trend in public opinion, he said, the church would not instruct Irish voters--about 90 percent of whom are Catholic--to oppose a referendum removing the divorce ban from the constitution.
Aides said FitzGerald came away quite pleased from a recent discussion of such issues with O'Fiaich. They said if the constitutional change is made, FitzGerald would consider introducing into parliament a bill legalizing divorce, but with novel legal protections for children involved.
FitzGerald said his campaign for constitutional change puts an extra burden on his minority coalition government at a time when it must take unpopular steps to deal with a serious financial crisis. After two decades of rapid industrialization and robust growth that transformed Ireland economically and socially from a stagnant agrarian society into a modern industrialized nation, expansionary job-creation policies during the current world recession have left it dangerously in debt, according to FitzGerald.
If no changes were made, he said, the government would have to borrow the equivalent of 22 percent of the gross national product to cover its budget and balance of payments deficits next year. By cutting government spending and increasing some taxes, he said he plans to cut the government deficit by half and its borrowing by a third.
FitzGerald, an economist and former financial journalist known for a computer-like command of figures, said the budget he presents to parliament next month will be a harsh austerity package that will force at least a temporary reduction in living standards for most Irish families and may further increase unemployment, which has already soared to 13 percent of the work force, the highest rate since 1936.
The fate of next month's budget will be a crucial test for the minority coalition government of FitzGerald's Fine Gael Party and the smaller Labor Party. But FitzGerald said his budget should still be sufficiently "socially progressive" to keep the support of the independent and minority party members in his thin working majority in parliament.