Hope and Fear in Ulster

IT may be the best of times and the worst of times in Northern Ireland: For all the promising signs of progress on peace talks, the end of October was one of the bloodiest weeks in the province since the hunger-strike days of the early 1980s.

Sectarian violence - tit-for-tat revenge killings in episodes of multiple fatalities - has intensified. Peace efforts are always most difficult where they are most needed.

The British government, which has long shut the illegal Irish Republican Army and its political wing, Sinn Fein, out of negotiations, has signaled a willingness to include them if they renounce violence. Sinn Fein leader Gerry Adams has been giving what appear to some to be indications of willingness to renounce the ``armed struggle.'' But by showing up as a pallbearer Oct. 27 for an IRA bomber who had killed himself and nine Protestant men, Mr. Adams has given another signal altogether.

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Prime Ministers John Major of Britain and Albert Reynolds of Ireland are weary of the slow going so far in talks on the future of Northern Ireland and have announced agreement on a new push for peace. The announcement included a promise to ``respond imaginatively'' - whatever that means - if parties to conflict renounce violence.

The British Army may eventually leave Northern Ireland, but the unionists, who identify themselves as British, have been on the island of Ireland for centuries. Long-term trends are running against them, but no one could responsibly seek a forcible unification of Ireland involving the involuntary absorption of a large though declining minority.

Any ``solution'' must be one that the broad mainstreams of both traditions, unionist and nationalist, can embrace. If ever there were a negotiating situation where ``win-win or no deal'' needed to be the standard, it is here. Too long in Ireland, ``win-lose'' has been the standard, or more specifically, ``My victory comes only at your total defeat.''

Yes, there may always be paramilitary fringe groups, but they would wither in a society built on a political construct in which both sides can have full confidence.

Intractability cannot have the last word in any aspect of human affairs. That said, we must also note that if progress toward peace is to be made in Northern Ireland, it will likely be through a combination of bold steps forward and patient waiting on the part of all those working for good. Habits of hatred may not be unlearned overnight.

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