A FEW days before my present trip back to my birth-country, England, the press here revealed that the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland exchanged 20 messages with the Irish Republican Army's political wing since last February.
What is it about our present era that has persuaded two old adversaries to follow the same path toward accommodation trodden by South African nationalists and the African National Congress, and by Israel and the PLO?
Of course, the differences between the three cases are many. Most notably, in the Northern Ireland case, revelation of the talks with the IRA forced an embarrassed British government to break them off - through Prime Minister John Major did have a moderately hopeful discussion on the troubled province with his counterpart from the Irish Republic, Albert Reynolds.
But there are intriguing similarities between Israel, South Africa, and Northern Ireland that go beyond their common origin in Britain's former imperial policy.
One is that, over recent years, opinion in the communities party to these three conflicts seems to have swung away from an ideological view governed by a sense of past injustice, and toward a pragmatism inspired by a desire for a ``normal'' life and more material comfort.
Thus, in the heartlands of Israel, the Palestinian territories, and black and white South Africa, the majority of people turned their back on the appeals of extremism. When community leaders of vision urged accommodation with old foes, their communities were ready to support them. In may ways, this seems true of feelings of the ``heartland'' British toward Northern Ireland. Few residents of England, Wales, or Scotland ever visit Northern Ireland, nor does it seem to matter much to them. They look at the British Army's huge, long-term peacekeeping operation and wonder whether it is worth the financial and human costs involved.
The same is not true of most members of Ulster's majority Protestant community. They remain passionately attached to their province's union with Great Britain. But a recent poll by the Irish Republic's leading newspaper found that a majority of all Ulster residents - Catholics as well as Protestants - favor a solution involving power-sharing between them in a Northern Ireland that is still, but more loosely, attached to Britain. (The British word for this decentralizing is ``devolution''.)
Resolution of the wrenching inter-communal conflict in Ulster may also be made a lot easier because both Britain and the Irish Republic are members of the European Community. The idea of a ``European'' identity is one that is taking root in many parts of Europe. If it takes root in Northern Ireland too, then the old debates about Protestants and Catholics in the province may lose much of their significance and passion.
So here is another common thread: in all three cases of longstanding conflicts moving toward resolution, this process also involves thinking about new and creative forms of governance. For the Palestinian ``self-governing authority'': After five years, they may move toward a kind of nation-state that would have broad governmental links with all its neighbors, starting with Jordan and Israel. For South Africans, there will be one vote per person in next April's elections, but with new constitutional guarantees for minorities.
In each case, it seems a solution can only be found if leaders and publics think beyond the nation-state, and start to sift some power away from the state upwards, into new regional groupings, and downwards to provincial or regional entities.
Could any of these three conflicts have come this near to resolution while the global cold war lasted? The cold war was, most importantly, a war about ideology. So long as they were entangled in cold-war posturing, it would have been much more difficult for Israel, the Palestinians, or black or white South Africans to dare to transcend ideological thinking - as they have in recent years.
In addition, the cold war gave tremendous importance to the nation-state. Britain and Israel, in particular, made large contributions to cold-war politics and planning. So long as the cold war continued, it probably seemed risky to think of tinkering with the nation-state mechanism in any serious way.
The coming year will see unprecedented elections for new governing bodies in South Africa and in the occupied Palestinian lands. It is not likely 1994 will bring anything similar in Northern Ireland. But politicians here seem hopeful that a workable new formula can be found for the province by the end of the century. That will take commitment and creative thinking from leaders and public alike: the South Africans, Palestinians, and Israelis have shown the way.