IN the past 18 months peace-seekers in Ireland, Northern Ireland, Britain, and the United States have made ardent efforts. Policymakers have displayed courage, flexibility, and statesmanship. What was unthinkable 18 months ago, meetings between British or US officials and Sinn Fein represen- tatives, for example, or White House entertainment of unionist leaders, is fact.
Despite this progress, two substantial roadblocks remain: unionist unwillingness to negotiate and the organization of violence in Ulster society.
The unionist refusal to participate in the first all-party meeting to discuss elections scheduled for May is perhaps even more significant for peace than the end of the Irish Republican Army's cease-fire. Ulster's two largest parties, the Ulster Unionist Party and the Democratic Unionist Party, objected to the presence at the meeting of Dick Spring, Republic of Ireland foreign minister. They argued that Mr. Spring's involvement reveals a British plot to force them into a union with the republic, a union that would leave them outnumbered and at sea in a Catholic state.
Despite British assurances, the unionists remained unconvinced. This refusal even to meet in the presence of a representative of the republic indicates something as damaging to prospects for a peaceful solution as terrorist bombs and continual stalemate: Unionists do not want a new constitutional arrangement, they do not want a peace process, and, if it comes on anybody else's terms, they do not really want peace.
On the first issue, the unionists' stance is a direct consequence of their conservative goal. Their interest is in preserving the status quo. While everyone stands to benefit from the change in lifestyle the ''peace-fires'' have brought, unionists have nothing to gain from a change in the province's constitutional status. Hence, they have no reason to negotiate, as they know the situation cannot change without their consent. Until the deal can be sweetened, their full cooperation is unlikely.
The unionist position at its extreme is actually quite similar to that of its archenemy. Neither group, unionist or republican, is willing to accept a settlement that falls short of its goals. Since the the two groups' goals are mutually exclusive, the situation has long inspired onlookers to declare the problem intractable. The job for peace-seekers in such a situation is to find some middle ground that, if nothing else, can reduce the antagonism and violence.
In Northern Ireland there is considerable room to address both sides' grievances without addressing the final question of the province's constitutional status. Thus, talks in the past two years have focused on issues of discrimination, police harassment, cultural persecution, trial without jury, and political prisoners.
The hope underlying such initiatives is that with improvement in the quality of people's lives, the impetus for political violence will disappear. In most situations this is more sound policy than false hope. Desperation, a sense of relative deprivation, hunger, frustration, and feelings of persecution drive people to political extremes. Yet while reducing legal inequality between the two groups, increasing investment, expanding employment opportunities, and encouraging cross-communal dialogue and interaction may reduce tension and incline the center toward more moderation, it will not appease the armed extremes of Ulster politics. These paramilitary organizations are Northern Ireland's second major predicament.
Twenty-five years of near-daily violence, beyond hardening people's hearts and toughening their resolve, have created a climate in which the most violent and dangerous element of Irish society has flourished. The paramilitary units, their weapons, and their willingness to use them must be acknowledged as more than simply a political phenomenon. The paramilitary armies of Northern Ireland are sophisticated mafia-type organizations that police and control their own communities. For nearly 10 years reports have circulated about the extortion and protection rackets these groups run. Besides obvious illegal gun-running, the paramilitaries are suspected of drug smuggling, money laundering, and many other such activities. Though the guns and bombs were out of fashion through the ''peace-fires'' period, punishment beatings, appalling acts of intracommunity violence, and threats have continued. Thus, these terrorist or guerrilla units have become self-sustaining. Their existence, masked by the ideology of nationalism, does not depend on political contest. Instead, the violence has become an end in itself.
If peace is ever to come to Northern Ireland, its seekers must find some way to marginalize these elements permanently. Removing the veneer of legitimate political opposition is the only way; both sides' reasonable political concerns must be addressed.
Efforts to minimize the terrorists' role explain the strange dance of British, Irish, and American leaders in the month since the end of the IRA cease-fire. Horrified by the return to violence and their association with its perpetrators, while at the same time trying to salvage the hope of the last two years, the governments of John Major, John Bruton, and Bill Clinton have vacillated between complete severance of ties with groups espousing violence and policies that leave the door open for further dialogue.
These leaders have generally come to the conclusion that the only real possibility for peace lies in keeping communications lines open. Hence, they have altered their view of Gerry Adams's role from that of IRA spokesman to intermediary between the IRA and other forces. Mr. Adams has been granted a US visa for a St. Patrick's Day visit but will not get an official welcome as he did last year. Instead, his visa and cool reception indicate the desire among British, Irish, and American leaders to accentuate the moderate and reasonable path in hopes of squelching the appeal of violence and the appearance of its necessity.
In addition, the British government, in the wake of international criticism it received for ''pushing'' the terrorists back into violence, has conceded nearly every point to which the IRA (and reasonable argument) objected, including decommissioning as a prerequisite for all-party talks. And in conjunction with the republic, Mr. Major has gone ahead with plans to hold May elections and begin all-party talks with the elected delegates in June.
While many argue that Major surrendered to bombs and threats, in making the concessions he did he has gestured toward compromise, presented options for progress, and recaptured the moderate ground. Likewise, a referendum on both sides of the border to denounce violence, as Mr. Bruton suggests, will further separate violence from the cause of self-determination. These actions may help render violence a less-reasonable option, further marginalizing its advocates. Once the guise of legitimate political objection is removed from the guerrilla organizations, they can be addressed more realistically as criminals instead of martyrs.
It may be easier to deal with the violence than to find ways to make peace appealing to those who do not wish it. The power of the violent fringes can be diluted. But without the cooperation of the conflict's major actors - the unionist parties - there is little hope for a lasting settlement. Sensitivity to their position is essential to the peace process. Policymakers must concentrate their efforts on increasing the incentives for compromise, particularly in the unionist camp.