THE war-weary people of Northern Ireland have rarely witnessed so much high political drama or experienced such a mixture of hope and anxiety as they have done in the past few days.
Revelations that the British government has maintained ``secret contacts'' with the outlawed Irish Republican Army (IRA) have astonished and disturbed many of the province's 1 million Protestants - most of whom favor retaining the link with Britain. Some, however, believe that such contacts, though duplicitous in the face of Britain's denials of IRA contacts, will be justified if they bring peace. Meanwhile, the half million Roman Catholics in Ulster, most of whom favor uniting Ireland by peaceful means, approve of any methods that would bring peace, even if it involves talking to terrorists on both sides.
The British government said Nov. 30 it would keep open its newly disclosed channels to the IRA, while calling on the terrorist group to lay down its arms. Exploratory talks with Sinn Fein, the IRA's political wing, could begin within 10 weeks of the IRA calling a cease-fire, British officials said.
The plethora of peace initiatives in the past few weeks is so complicated that even experienced political observers here have difficulty keeping pace with events. Ordinary citizens, who receive their information mostly through the news media, are bewildered, hopeful, and apprehensive. The bewilderment is easy to understand.
First, there have been the talks between John Hume, leader of the mainly Catholic Social Democratic and Labour Party, which favors Irish unity by peaceful means, and Gerry Adams, president of Sinn Fein. Mr. Hume claims that if Britain acts upon the recommendations of these talks, there will be ``peace within a week.''
Second, there are ongoing discussions between the British and Irish governments, which have not accepted the Hume-Adams recommendations formally, but seem to have incorporated some of their points in a joint communique issued in Brussels in October. An Irish-British summit meeting is scheduled for Dec. 3, but may be delayed by complications. The public here anticipates that such a meeting could produce a historic announcement but no one can even guess what this might be.
Third, there have been ongoing attempts by the Northern Ireland secretary, Sir Patrick Mayhew, to restart talks between the constitutional parties within Northern Ireland, but so far these remain stalled.
Though many Unionists are furious at Britain's IRA contacts and concerned that London will make an agreement with Dublin behind their backs, others, including the business community, say that peace may be worth the risk.
It appears incredible that the IRA is prepared to seek peace. Its secret overtures to the British are a significant indication of war-weariness on its part, even if the IRA denies the British claim that the terrorist declared ``the conflict is over.''
Ordinary citizens hope the war will end, but they are shown few signs of compromise by politicians on either side. The Irish nationalists, including the IRA, seem to want Britain to decide in favor of a long-term Irish ``self-determination,'' while allowing the Unionists in the six northeastern counties on the island to maintain the link with Britain for as long as a majority in Northern Ireland wishes to remain. The Unionists' say that such a move by Britain will set in motion a long-term move to Irish unity.
Despite their hope and war-weariness, citizens also have an apprehension based on bitter experience that the window of opportunity may close.
As the people of Northern Ireland prepare for the bright lights and bustle of Christmas and try to keep the darkness at bay, there is a particular poignancy about this traditional ``season of peace.'' The hunger for peace is tangible, but the stakes are very high, and most of the ordinary people, both Protestant and Roman Catholic, can only watch and pray.