IN a world that has lately witnessed a handshake between the chairman of the Palestine Liberation Organization and the Israeli prime minister, any number of impossibilities seem at least somewhat less impossible. Progress toward peace in Northern Ireland is one of these.
Perhaps the biggest surprise in recent developments is that they turn on a purported willingness of the outlawed Irish Republican Army to renounce violence.
Over the past six months, John Hume, the leader of the mostly Catholic Social Democratic and Labour Party, has been negotiating secretly with Gerry Adams, leader of Sinn Fein, the political wing of the IRA. For years, Sinn Fein and the IRA have been fighting to ``get the Brits out'' of the six counties of the north of Ireland, which have a Protestant majority and are part of the United Kingdom. The ``armed struggle'' has cost more than 3,000 lives over a quarter-century. Some 2,500 IRA members are in prison for what they call political offenses but the British authorities call terrorism. None of this has advanced Irish unity, and a certain war-weariness is understood to be setting in. Meanwhile, nearly as many unionist (Protestant) paramilitaries are behind bars as well.
Against this background, Messrs. Hume and Adams have announced, ``We are convinced from our discussions that the process can be designed to lead to agreement among the divided people of this island which will provide a solid basis for peace.''
The actual content of the discussions has been rather cryptic, however. On Oct. 7, Hume is to deliver to the Dublin government a document that has come out of his talks with Adams, which theoretically could be the basis for discussions, however distasteful many of its elements are sure to be.
At a reception in Boston a few days ago, Hume stressed that the primary goal of his talks with Adams was a cessation of violence. Details of a political settlement would come later. But he is clearly pleased, in his quietly intense way, that, as he put it, he has got the IRA ``beyond just talking about getting `the Brits out.' ''
What does he say, he was asked, to the unionists, who see the whole business as a first step in their abandonment by Britain and the much-feared unification with the Irish Republic to the south?
He counseled patience. ``Suspend judgment,'' he urged. ``Read the statement we have released.''
The difficulties are not to be underestimated. As in the Middle East, an accord would be only the beginning. Hearing all parties out would only make more unmistakably clear how great are the divides between them.
British Prime Minister John Major can't afford at this point to lean too hard on the unionists for concessions, since he needs their support in Parliament to face down the threat from anti-Europeans on his own right wing.
The diplomatic challenge for all parties in this is to give the right signals, to identify concessions they can give that don't represent fundamental compromises of principles but do allow others to save face.
``There's a sense that they're reaching out a hand,'' one observer says of Sinn Fein. ``Do you reach out a hand to meet it? Do you put a hand out without actually touching?''
Hume observed in Boston: ``If I fail, then nothing has changed. But if I succeed, everything has changed.''