THOSE searching for a peaceful solution in Northern Ireland are like a video-game player who has slain the monsters at one level of play but who now enters a new level, where the opponents will be even more difficult to defeat.
Level 1 in Northern Ireland - a turn from violence to talk - seems fully achieved. Loyalist paramilitaries laid down their arms Oct. 13, joining the Irish Republican Army (IRA), who took the first step Aug. 31. British Prime Minister John Major responded Oct. 21 with several moves, including opening the border between Northern Ireland and the Irish Republic and agreeing to ``talk about talks'' with Sinn Fein, the IRA's political wing, before Christmas.
With the clouds of violence dissipated, however, the fundamental disagreement stands out more clearly. Simply put, it is this: A majority in Northern Ireland see themselves as British citizens and wish to remain part of Britain; but a majority of those on the island as a whole consider themselves to be Irish and aspire to including Ulster in a united Ireland.
Whatever solution emerges must recognize these deeply held identities and supply assurances that they will not be neglected in any new political configuration. The challenge will be to keep forward momentum while maintaining a pace that provides time for fresh thinking and new realities to be discussed and absorbed.
Chipping away at the core issue through many interim steps seems to be the right way to proceed. Hidden guns and explosives, on both sides, need to be given up, to close off easy retreat into violence. Closer economic and cultural ties between Northern Ireland and the Irish Republic should be built. Local self-rule should return to the North, which has been directly governed by Westminster for over 20 years.
Longer range, the Royal Ulster Constabulary must be reorganized into a force that has the trust of Catholics. British Army troops, who have played an invaluable role protecting both Protestants and Catholics, already have taken a lower profile. Their presence, though, is an irritant to many Catholics and should be reduced as events make this possible without sacrificing public safety.
The segregation of life in Northern Ireland remains an obstacle to better understanding. Most Protestants and Catholics live literally walled off from each other; 95 percent of schools are not integrated. Each side fears that it will not have full economic opportunity and political rights, let alone free expression of its cultural identity, under the other's preferred government.
Any moves to address these fears help build toward a lasting solution.