BRUCE COOPER, an English Catholic, who has lived in the Province during the Troubles, assesses the chances of the success of the Convention. IT IS not the public statements of the front-line politicians that augur ill for the Northern Ireland Convention, but rather the implacable bigotry present in the minds of young people. As a security guard said to me: "Well, what do you think to Ian Paisley's majority? We've got them where we want them now."
Perhaps more than any single person, Ian Paisley fills minds, young and old, with antiCatholicism. With his earshattering eloquence fanning the waves of prejudice, it is a wonder that any self-respecting person can vote fur him.
But people with the most sober credentials do — the bourgeois farmers and townsfolk of North Antrim, kindly landladies in respectable Portrush, yes, even some Catholics. His appeal is always different.
To some, and this is the strength of his Democratic Unionist Party, he is appealing to the Bible-belt section of the community, those who regard it as sinful to mow a lawn on Sunday or let kids use a swing in a playground or swim in a municipal bath.
At the same time, Paisley is a model constituency MP. I remember talking to a personnel manager of a firm, who was groaning at the prospect of meeting the reverend doctor the following day. A Catholic typist had been declared redundant and had written asking if her MP could help.
From the previous occupants of the safe Unionist seat, her letter would have not progressed beyond the wastepaper basket. But Paisley intervened and by many such examples of practical help, he has accumulated some Catholic votes.
His party represents one stand of the tripod of the United Ulster Unionist Council. The Vanguard represents another element, pa:ticularly those of the para-military organisations and the people who ran the Ulster Workers' Council strike last May.
The Official Unionists arc more the Orange Order type of Unionist, a little bit up the social scale. Their tripartite alliance is more an alliance against certain things than for social or economic policies, and predominantly against any interference from Dublin.
The other cement which binds them together is a fierce sense of their separate cultural identity. Like the Jews in Israel who submerge their political differences in the face of the numerically stronger Arabs who surround them, so Protestant Ulstermen unite against the perceived threat from Dublin.
They ignore the fact that even if the South politically wished to take over the North, which it manifestly does not, militarily it would be in no position to do so. To the detached observer, it is apparent, even under some condominium arrangement, that Ulster would preserve its character, in the same way that Yorkshire does.
But the situation does not lend itself easily to logical analysis. The condition is pathological. To the F.nglishman the other side of the Irish Sea they are all Irish, but to the Ulsterman the differences appear as great as between the Ibos and Hausas of West Africa.
If the Protestants have their myths. so do the Catholics. These are sedulously cultivated by the politicians. One might imagine from their utterances that all Catholics are yearning for a United Ireland, listening to Gaelic broadcasts from RTE.
This is not so. The citizens of the Bogside follow English football with the same interest as those of Sandy Row. The housewives in the Falls enjoy Coronation Street, as do people living in Bootle or Barnsley. Talk to them, and conversation rarely gets around to United Ireland.
Protestants are too ready to believe that Catholic means Republican. The results of the polls for the Convention show how little support the outright Republican viewpoint had. That which appeared was expressed by boycott produced by the intimidation of the IRA.
Protestants who had been willing to grant that Catholics had been unjustly treated, when they saw the IRA's wanton and indiscriminate violence increase after the introduction of reforms, the suspension of Stormont and the Sunningdale Agreement, came to the conclusion that Catholics never really wanted civil rights but only the destruction of what they called their Province.
As one UDA man said: "We do not have our backs to the wall; we have our backs to a precipice, we have nothing to lose."
Protection rackets and illegal drinking dens thrive. And the gangsters on both sides (UDA and UVF: Official IRA and IRSP) argue among themselves and shoot it out. It is the prevalence of this anarchy that makes the SDLP's attitude to the RUC so perplexing. Can one really afford more innocent lives being lost, while the SDLP try to obtain constitutional agreement?
Over the last four years, it seems to me, the RUC have redeemed some of the sins of the past. They have died defending Catholic lives as well as Protestant ones. As a force they do not strike one as corrupt. They inherit some of the best traditions of the Royal Irish Constabulary, from whom they were formed. They were, at times, victims of Unionist-enacted legislation, which they disliked but were asked to enforce. They showed considerable understanding and delicacy in routeing marches and hated some of the assignments they had. Even some of the controversial episodes take on a different light.
It was interesting to hear Mr Eamonn McCann admit on television some months ago that when the civil rights marchers moved through Burntollet, they were actually seeking (with the world's cameras at their feet) a confrontation with the police.
Perhaps a sign of the RUC's present impartiality is that they are detested equally by the :
Protestant extremist paramilitary groups as they are by 7 hardline Republicans. When people talk about changes in the Force, they seem unable to : appreciate there is now a Police
Authority and that over half the force has joined since 1969.: Some Catholic politicians did: their hest to discredit the RUC: and are now reaping the: whirlwind, But others arc: beginning to realise that the RUC is a brave force and that : maybe it is time to recognise the fact.
One lesson which Ulster can teach the rest of the United Kingdom is not to let Left-wing intellectuals or skilful propagandists undermine confidence in the police. Sir Robert Mark's warning against complacency over extremists gains an added credibility against the backcloth of Ulster.
What sins the police commit are accountable. The crimes committed by para-military groups, and the punishments handed out by them, admit of no process of jurisdiction.
The most urgent task facing Ulster is the establishment of effective policing throughout the whole Province. Significantly it is only the moderate Alliance Party which has been calling for this. The IJUUC is 'tainted by its associations with the para-military groups. and the SDLP still see the issue as a bargaining counter.
What hope does the Convention have, therefore? As always the answer is complex. As the Protestant Newsletter said in an editorial celebrating the landslide majority for the UUUC, "now is the time for magnanimity" (and yet Ulster has an unparalleled record of getting the boot in). One cannot expect hardline Republicans to forsake United Ireland as an immediate goal, but if the SDLP can put the Irish dimension on, as they say in Ulster, "the long finger," and express it in culturally equal terms rather than governmental or geographic entities, that would allay the fears of the Protestants, Power-sharing is more difficult. Many of the continental coalition governmental institutions examined show that coalitions are a product of the inability of one community to form a majority. When, even 'through proportional representation methods, the Protestants have a significant majority, which reflects the mood of the people, one has to think carefully of how one can realise power-sharing.
If the committees being proposed do have the teeth of American Congressional Committees, an important and powerful series of checks and balances would have been built ill, and the SDLP would be foolish to reject, without careful examination, such overtures.
Other magnanimous gestures might be to put leading figures of the SDLP in posts such as chairman of the Police Authority, or .of the Housing Executive.
But if we had to rely solely on the politicians to pull us out of our trouble, we would be in for a bleak time — Northern Ireland seems to throw up the worst political representatives. The situation will change when more and more people stand up to be counted and take responsibility themselves for improVement. Northern Ireland has had more than its fill of prophets.