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New Ireland Forum: views from Republic, and Ulster Unionists

THE New Ireland Forum was not established to produce an instant solution to the Northern Ireland problem. After 15 years of violence and hundreds of years of history, no one believes that a single solution exists which could begin to meet the complexity of the issues involved. The aims were more specific than the finding of a solution, and it is against these aims that the success of the report must be judged.

The first aim was to put the question of Northern Ireland back as a priority on the agenda of the British government, and especially in the context of Anglo-Irish relations. The members of all parties in the Forum were imbued with a sense of urgency and a burning realization that the situation in Northern Ireland had deteriorated to such an extent that unless a radical departure was initiated the situation might be beyond repair. The first task was to convey this sense of urgency to a British government which up to now had seen Northern Ireland largely in terms of crisis management and had not produced a major political initiative in over a decade.

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Also, the Forum made no secret of the fact that it sought to support the cause of constitutional nationalism in Northern Ireland, as represented by the Social Democratic and Labour Party.

Ever since the hunger strikes of 1981, the rate of alienation among the Roman Catholic population had increased dramatically, and with it a drift to the political wing of the Provisional IRA, the Provisional Sinn Fein. At the root was a growing conviction that constitutional nationalism had failed, and that the nationalist population would make progress only through the methods of the IRA. The task then was to convince these people that progress was not just possible through constitutional methods, but that the only worthwhile progress could be achieved in this way.

As part of its overall aim of finding a means toward reconciliation, the Forum sought a nationalist consensus as to the nature and causes of the present conflict; to identify those principles that would have to be accommodated in any resolution; and also to see if there were any new political structures within which these principles could be accommodated. It was hoped that if a nationalist consensus could be produced, the Unionists and the British would be encouraged to do likewise, and thus lay the foundations for a realistic and informed debate.

One of the first aims was to gather and analyze the evidence for such a debate. It set out to answer a variety of questions that hitherto belonged to the realms of speculation. It sought for example to find out the cost of the division of the island in economic, social, and financial terms over the past 60 years, and also to estimate the opportunities lost through division. It tried to see how the two economies would have developed had there been no partition. It sought to quantify the costs of the violence of the past 15 years, and it tried to examine the economic and financial costs of British withdrawal and the cost of Irish unity. It tried to flesh out the type of political arrangements and changes that would be part of the three constitutional models it examined: a unitary Irish state, a federal Ireland, or joint authority, that is, where responsibility for Northern Ireland would be shared jointly between Britain and the Republic.

This information served as a backdrop for the Forum's report, which was to establish those principles that were central to any lasting settlement. Here the Forum identified the question of identity as crucial - the existence in Northern Ireland of separate and legitimate identities, the sense of being ''British'' of the Unionists and the ''Irishness'' of the nationalists, and the need for any settlement to give institutionalized recognition to these identities. This section also made it clear that the consent of the Unionists was essential in any new arrangement.

Having identified these principles, the Forum examined the three models already mentioned. As was to be expected, the members of the Forum, as constitutional nationalists, expressed their preference for the unitary-state model, and indicated ways it could be structured, and the type of guarantees it would provide for the Unionist people.

But more significantly it indicated that it had an open mind as to arrangements that were possible. Through its subcommittee, it spelled out the detail of a federal Ireland and of joint authority and expressed openness to other possibilities. So long as the realities or principles outlined in Chapter 5 of the report could be accommodated, the Forum made clear it would not adopt a dogmatic or exclusive approach.

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It is this open-mindedness that is at the core of the Forum report. The Forum was intended to start a political process - to show that nationalist Ireland was capable of detailed self-analysis, to show that for the first time, perhaps, it understood the Unionist position; that it was capable of producing new ideas that would break old molds. In doing this, it sought to convince the Unionist population of its goodwill and the British government of its sense of urgency, and by so doing, begin a genuine and hope-filled political dialogue to replace the vacuum and the despair that exist at present.

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