Following Mrs Thatcher's recent meeting with Mr John Hume MEP, and the submissions of the Irish Bishops' Conference and Fr Brian Lennon SJ to the New Ireland Forum, Terence Sheehy examines the prospects for the future in Northern Ireland
IN RELATION to the Northern Ireland conflict. three short steps have been taken on the road to Irish unity. Firstly. the Prime Minister, Mrs Margaret Thatcher. found time to meet and listen to John Hume MEP in London.
John Hume. leading spokesman for the moderate SDLP party. is one of the more articulate and honest of politicians on the Northern Ireland scene.
Mrs Thatcher. noted as an economist and a scientist. is less renowned for her knowledge of Irish history, as can be judged by her sometimes, perhaps inadvertently, referring to the Irish Republic as "the Irish Free State".
An archaic title, it betrays either her ignorance of Irish history, or her calculated distaste. If the latter. who could blame her after the obscene death meted out to her friend and guide and mentor, Airey Neave, by the INLA. By leaving Six County affairs to Jim Prior. Mrs Thatcher has so far saved herself from being trapped in the bog of Irish politics.
Secondly. the Irish bishops. with the publication of their *Submission to the New Ireland Forum. threw their mitres. as it were, into the ring, and followed it up with a remarkable television interview on RTE.
The Submission of the Irish Episcopal Conference to the New Ireland Forum is a bland document. It comprises five brief papers on Ecumenism, The Family. Pluralism. The Alienation of Catholics in Northern Ireland, and the Catholic School System in Northern Ireland.
They did have the good sense. in the submission on Ecumenism. to record the well established guideline of Mgr Arthur Ryan. "never to say in private what you would not say in public. or to the person about whom you are speaking: never to say to appease your 'own side' what you would have to withdraw in conversation with the 'other side."
Ecumenism is something new in Ireland but due credit is paid by the Irish Catholic Bishops to the courage. self-sacrifice and openness displayed by Protestant ecumenists.
On the Family the Bishops stated. rather coyly, that they were simply seeking to alert the civil authorities to the grave social changes inherent in so many current situations which do not recognise the role of the family, based on marriage, as the fundamental unit of our society.
Pluralism is a relatively new word in Catholic Ireland and the Bishops don't know quite what to do with it. They conclude that it offers no easy solution to difficult questions.
The alienation of Catholics in Northern Ireland State began in 1921. The conclusion was that the alienation of Catholics from the institutions of state in Northern Ireland was both consitterabfe and on the increase today.
The Catholic school system in Northern Ireland defends Catholic schools against the charge of being divisive, and concludes that during the 14 years of violence the Catholic school has often been for many pupils an oasis of stability, order, peace and calm.
The Irish bishops. in their submission to the New Ireland Forum. are in an unenviable position as in the Twenty-Six Counties, half the population is under twenty-five years of age. is well educated and articulate, and more concerned with the cost of living than listening to the clatter of bishops' croziers.
Thirdly, the Irish Government have published No 10 of the Report of Proceedings at the Public Sessions of the **New Ireland Forum in Dublin Castle, which includes a significant submission by Fr Brian Lennon SJ published in ***Report No 3. Fr Lennon was educated at UCD and at Fordham, has a strong interest in ecumenism, and is at present a community worker in the strongly Protestant area of Portadown.
In his submission to the Forum, in reply to the question. "What relationship do you see between religion and politics in your local community", he answered, "The conflict in Northern Ireland is primarily political . . . one of the problems is that Catholics perceive themselves as being politically oppressed by Protestants while Protestants perceive Cthaetmsleiclyse.s. as being religiously oppressed by Catholics."
He saw the issue of mixed marriages as being felt much more by the Church of Ireland Ministers. and he believed that for religious reasons and from the point of view of Roman theology the rules should be changed.
He saw IRA violence, which he condemned, as an expression of hopelessness. Sinn Fein's role he saw as negative. but they represented 10 per cent of the people of Northern Ireland, and mostly in poorer areas.
One of the major points made by Fr Lennon in his submission was that Northern politicians did not accurately represent the communities they purported to represent in as much as a large minority of Unionists would accept power sharing but would feel traitors if they openly admitted it by voting for it.
He stressed the enormous importance of the necessity to eliminate inequalities in job opportunities in the two communities.
Asked what his assessment of the situation was of the Protestant reaction if the British were to declare their withdrawal from Northern Ireland, Fr Lennon replied, "In such event I might be taking a train for Dublin."
He said that he did not know whether such a situation would lead to a blood-bath but he believed that the question of British withdrawal had to be teased out much more as to what it meant, and worked on in short-term goals preparing the ground for wider settlements, perhaps many years hence.
* "Submission to the New Ireland Forum from the Irish Episcopal Conference January 1984." Veritas Publications. Dublin. Price 99p ** "New Ireland Forum... Reports of Proceedings. Volumes No. 1 to 10. The, Stationers Office, Dublin. Prices from 8Ip to I:1.80 per volume.
*** "New Ireland Forum... Report of Proceedings. No. 3 Price £1.80.