ON March 25 four Roman Catholic workmen in the seaside town of Castlerock were killed in a single attack by the outlawed Ulster Freedom Fighters (UFF), a paramilitary group that favors union with Britain, and two other Catholics were killed elsewhere. Since 1969, similar attacks in Northern Ireland, or Ulster, have killed a total of 3,053 people - Protestants, Catholics, security forces, and terrorists. It is hard to come to terms with something faintly reminiscent of the war in Bosnia-Herzegovina when i t is on your own doorstep.
The awful thing about living in Northern Ireland is that we have seen it all before: the first news of the killings, the ritual condemnation, the grieving relatives, the shocked bystanders, the chilling, even gloating, words of the assassins. After the Castlerock killings, a UFF spokesman said: "It's been a good week so far - and it's only Thursday."
Significantly, however, the current widespread revulsion at more recent killings - the murders of two young boys by an Irish Republican Army (IRA) bomb in Warrington, England - feels different. Tiny Jonathan Ball, aged 3, and Tim Parry, a lad of 12, were killed, and others were injured, when an IRA bomb exploded in a litter bin in a crowded shopping center. Their deaths touched a raw nerve in Britain and the Irish Republic, prompting massive publicity in the British and Irish press. About 30,000 people i n Dublin signed books of condolences to be sent to the grieving families in Warrington. Irish Deputy Prime Minister Dick Spring sent an eloquent message of sympathy: "The real Ireland is walking in spirit behind the coffins of your sons."
In Dublin, a peace rally gathered March 28 to protest the recent killings, drawing a crowd of at least 15,000. At the rally, clergymen, poets, singers and actors launched a "Peace '93 Initiative," which intends to "channel public anger and revulsion into positive and dignified action for peace."
The question now is whether activism will translate into political progress. Northern Ireland, the epicenter of the long upheaval, has seen many such apparent "turning points" when the public was outraged by paramilitary violence.
Irish Prime Minister Albert Reynolds has called for a resumption of cross-border talks between the Dublin, London, and the Northern Ireland political parties. These talks foundered in July 1992 after 16 months, partly because the unionists of the North, who want to remain part of the United Kingdom, accused the Dublin government of inflexibility in its refusal to hold a referendum on Articles 2 and 3 of the Irish Constitution, which still lays claim to the territory of Northern Ireland.
Thus far, it is unclear whether the latest olive branch from Mr. Reynolds is evidence of more flexibility on this particular question. The Unionists have already dismissed the offer as a "PR exercise." It seems likely, however, that the horror of recent events, and the public reaction, will continue to pressure the politicians toward new talks.
Equally, the paramilitaries are coming under increasing pressure. It has been a particularly bad period for the IRA. Sen. Gordon Wilson, a Northern Protestant who recently accepted a seat in the Irish Senate in Dublin, has embarrassed the IRA into agreeing to a face-to-face meeting in private. Senator Wilson touched the hearts of millions when he spoke movingly on television following the murder of his daughter Marie in a 1987 IRA bomb attack. He has impeccable credentials to talk to the IRA "as human be ings," and a powerful philosophy: "Enough is enough. There has to be a better way."
Despite the war-weariness in Ulster, there are still signs of hope. Many peace movements have remained active, and the yearning for an end to hostilities is widespread and deep. There is a need for all the politicians, and "the plain people of Ireland" as Wilson calls them, to go on believing that peace is possible.