THE cease-fire declared by the Provisional Irish Republican Army (IRA) on Aug. 31 has led to one of the most complex and uncertain periods of Northern Ireland's history since the current ''Troubles'' began over 25 years ago.
Inexplicably, some people on both sides of the religious and political divide believe that they have won. Catholics in West Belfast were euphoric after the cease-fire was declared. Gerry Adams, president of Sinn Fein (the political wing of the IRA) did much to create the cease-fire and was hailed as a hero. But a mural went up in Protestant Shankill Road nearby claiming that the Provisional IRA had in fact surrendered to the British. This stark contrast continues to appear in newspaper articles by longtime
and reputable observers of the Ulster scene and in letters to the editors.
The Catholic supporters of Sinn Fein believe that the British government will announce withdrawal of troops from the republican enclave of West Belfast and other areas, and that the British government will try to persuade the Protestants to accept a united Ireland. Many Protestants, on the other hand, are reluctant to believe that the IRA Provisionals are war-weary, and that they are now concentrating on political methods of achieving their objectives.
The truth, always elusive in Northern Ireland, may be somewhere between the two points of view. Some observers point out that nobody has won. But if this is true then, oddly, everybody is beginning to win because both sides are beginning to realize that no outright victory is possible. In other words, the Provisional IRA is beginning to realize that it cannot bomb or bully the province's 1 million Protestants into accepting Irish unity. The Protestants, on the other hand, have to face the reality that the Provisional IRA cannot be defeated militarily and that the unionists, who wish to maintain the link with Britain, will instead have to deal with a broad nationalist front that is working politically for Irish unity with the agreement of all sides.
But will Protestants accept the changing circumstances? Ordinary Protestants, as opposed to political activists, are confused, angry, and apprehensive. They cannot accept the IRA cease-fire at face value. They believe it is an IRA tactic in a long war of attrition. They fear that if the republicans do not make significant advances quickly, they will resort to violence. Protestants, who have been stoic under the 25-year terrorist barrage, are angry that IRA violence seems to be paying off. Many Protestants certainly don't trust British Prime Minister John Major, fearing a British sellout and the possible degeneration of Northern Ireland into a Bosnia-like quagmire.
The unionist political parties are divided. The hard-line Democratic Unionist Party, under the raucous Rev. Ian Paisley, has attacked Mr. Major. The official Ulster Unionist Party, under the canny and skilled veteran leader James Molyneaux, is adopting a wait-and-see philosophy. The loyalist paramilitaries, who are key players in the situation, are considering the advisability of a cease-fire. They may be more realistic than political leaders because, if the cease-fire breaks down, they will have to do the
But if the IRA really have given up violence -- and a big ''if'' it is -- then the situation has changed dramatically, on a par with the crumbling of the Berlin Wall. At a stroke the considerable forces of Irish nationalism are allied for peace. These include the moderate and mainly Catholic Social Democratic and Labour Party, the Irish Government, the Provisional Republican movement, the forceful Irish-American lobby, and President Clinton. This could be a powerful enough group to persuade the world -- an d hopefully the Ulster Unionists -- that an ''agreed'' Ireland (a code word for a united Ireland) forms the best hope for the future.
Unionists may not possess the political or negotiating skills to deal with the new situation. Instead of turning it to their advantage and beginning to deal between London, Dublin, and Washington as best they can, unionists may retreat further into the old no-surrender mode, especially if they feel abandoned by London. The British feelings toward the unionists are unclear. They seem to be saying, ''You can stay in our house as long as you like, but we don't really mind if you go.''
The unionist side now needs someone like South Africa's Frederik de Klerk to point out the unpalatable realities and to urge courage and vision. Unfortunately, the only possible candidate for this role is Mr. Molyneaux, who is politically courageous and skillful but is also 74 and lacks charisma. Their best bet is to keep their nerve and build on the cease-fire, retaining British support, a condition backed by some northern Catholics who favor the British link for economic reasons.
The best course for Irish nationalists now is to maintain the cease-fire, to reach out to old opponents, and to forget past hurts. All this plus tremendous patience. Patience is needed in the United States, too, to allow people to adjust to new situations. It is particularly hard for Protestants to accept the good intentions of Irish-Americans who, until recently, were contributing money to help blow them to smithereens. And from the British, even more patience is required to give the small seeds of peace a chance to grow.
The above is a benign scenario. It could all break down at any time. The next few weeks will affect Northern Ireland for many years to come. Whatever happens, the situation here will never be quite the same again.