Backstage: Ireland

What is the ‘Big Man’ up to?

Brendan Keenan December 31 1979
Backstage: Ireland

What is the ‘Big Man’ up to?

Brendan Keenan December 31 1979

What is the ‘Big Man’ up to?

Backstage: Ireland

Brendan Keenan

After 10 years of violence, nearly 2,000 dead and the collapse of two systems of government, optimism is not a commodity easily found on the battered streets

of Ulster. So the surprising thing about a new all-party conference to be held early in the new year is not that any-

one is predicting success but

that so few are willing to write it off completely. It’s four weary years since the last attempt to find political agreement between the two fundamental groups in Ulster: the majority—mainly Protestant—loyalists who cling to their British citizenship and to the principle of majority rule; and the minority—mainly Catholic—who want to see an independent, united Ireland and in the meantime a form of government that will at least recognize that their hearts are Irish rather than British.

A convention in 1975 resulted in both sides stating their positions and refusing to

compromise. That conference

followed the collapse of a government in which both sides held cabinet seats, but which was brought down by a strike of angry Protestant workers. Even that brief power-sharing arrangement was reached only after painstaking negotiation by British ministers. Since then the British have been at a loss to know what to do with their troublesome Irish province. Meanwhile, security efforts to smash the IRA guerrillas—who believe the only way to unite Ireland is by force—have failed to produce any results.

However, pressures for some political initiative—urged by the Irish government and by prominent Irish-Americans including House Speaker Tip O’Neill—have grown. When the initiative finally came last month, it bore all the signs of a half-hearted attempt, and the British themselves almost killed it at birth with a mixture of clumsy diplomacy and sloppy drafting. The major Catholic party, the Social Democratic and Labor Party (SDLP) ( thought the terms of reference would prevent them discussing their cherished “Irish dimension” scheme of involving the Irish government in an Ulster settlement, but stopping short of actual unity. The row cost the longtime SDLP leader, Gerry Fitt, his job. Fitt resigned when his party at first refused to attend the conference. But his successor, a quiet but subtle strategist called John Hume, worked out a compromise with the British, and now his party is set to talk.

The fact that things have got even this far—with Jan. set as a starting date—is due to the surprise reaction of the toughest of the Protestant leaders, Rev. Ian Paisley. Paisley’s thundering biblical denunciations have spelled the end of a whole series of “Loyalist” (as in loyal to the United Kingdom) leaders, who compromised too much for the “Big Man,” as Paisley is half-affectionately known. But this time Paisley agreed to go to the conference, and so far has done his best to make sure it takes place. The question everyone in Ulster is asking is: what’s the Big Man up to this time? One thing he may be up to is teaching his rivals on the Protestant side a lesson in political footwork. The other major Loyalist party, the Official Unionists, announced almost at once that it would not attend the conference, calling it time-wasting. Since the Official Unionists are regarded as more moderate than Paisley’s Democratic Unionists, they were surprised and worried when Paisley

showed such enthusiasm.

There is no doubt that Paisley’s ambition is to be the undisputed spokesman for Ulster’s one million Protestants, and he is closer to that ambition than ever before. In the recent elections to the European Parliament, Paisley got more votes than all the other Loyalist candidates combined. He may intend to use the conference to stress his advantage over the Official Unionists. But it’s possible that his plans go even further—to lead a government of Northern Ireland. To do that he needs a deal with the Catholics in the SDLP.

The difficulties in the path of such a deal can make even like Rhodesia seem

simple. Paisley is not just a politician, but the leader of a religious sect which preaches the evil of Roman Catholicism. He has got where he is by being more extreme than any other Loyalist leader. So, even if he now wants to move toward the Catholics, will his followers go with him? An even more troubling prospect is that the IRA can be counted on to make things difficult. Last week the guerrillas demonstrated again their striking power by killing five regular British soldiers, a part-timer and a prison guard in one day. The other major difficulties facing the conference remain what they have always been in Ulster: how to involve the Protestants in government when an election is bound to produce a majority of Catholics, and how to create the “Irish dimension” without inflaming Protestant fears of a take-over by the Irish republic. If there are grounds for hope, it is because there is a new breath of realism in the air: politicians are not talking of coming out of the conference with a blueprint for a solution to a centuries-old problem. Instead they are hoping for progress toward consensus.

Other observers see hope in the fact that all the relevant political leaders are in a stronger position than most of their predecessors of the last decade. Paisley is at last in from the cold and Hume has the confidence of his rankand-file in a way that Fitt did not. In the capitals, British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher commands an overwhelming majority in the House of Commons and in Dublin the new prime minister, Charles Haughey, is likely to prove a tougher leader than the man he unseated. But the politicos must display the same determination and the same patience as the IRA. Reports this week say the guerrillas are planning for a second 10 years of struggle. Only the same single-mindedness can ensure the victory of the ballot box over the bullet and bomb.

Brendan Keenan is Maclean ’s correspondent in Dublin.