SHORTLY after President Clinton facilitated the celebrated handshake between Yasser Arafat and Yitzhak Rabin at the signing of the Middle East peace accords, it was suggested in this space that we might someday see a handshake to mark progress for another of the world's perennial trouble spots, Northern Ireland.
And now, less than a year later, it has happened. There, on front pages on both sides of the Atlantic, was the photograph of Sinn Fein leader Gerry Adams welcomed into the fold of constitutional politics by Irish Prime Minister Albert Reynolds and John Hume, leader of the Social Democratic and Labour Party of Northern Ireland.
Of course this handshake, even as a three-fer, is not quite equivalent to the Rabin-Arafat grip. The ultimate handshake would be between Mr. Adams and the hard-line Democratic Unionists' leader, Ian Paisley - or his successor.
That should not cloud the fact, though, that the ``complete cessation of military operations'' that the Irish Republican Army announced Aug. 31 represents a remarkable step toward peace - or a series of steps, all collapsed into one. Reports of an internal debate within the republican movement over a renunciation of violence had gone on for years. For a place where the pace of change has given new meaning to the term ``incremental,'' this was the equivalent of the Big Bang.
Of course it is only the beginning. And there have been false starts before. And it can't have seemed like overnight success to Mr. Hume, who is likely to give former President Carter some competition for the next Nobel Peace Prize. The progress that has come about in this classic diplomatic challenge, the equivalent in statecraft of irresistible force meeting immovable object, has been due largely to the power of talk: continual contacts between the British and the Irish, between the British and the IRA, certainly between Adams and Hume.
It must be restated: This is only a beginning. Organizations that fomented or justified violence for years must appreciate that it will take time to build trust, and that they may never win the trust of some of their opponents. British official caution vis-a-vis the cease-fire announcement is not only understandable but correct.
Nonetheless, the cease-fire, if it holds, and if it turns out to be what it purports to be, is one of those bold leaps of the political imagination that come along all too rarely.
Now the demand is for leadership from the mostly Protestant unionists. The leader of the more moderate official Ulster Unionist Party, James Molyneaux, has been seen as at least cautiously receptive toward the cease-fire; that Mr. Paisley has not been can surprise no one.
No one should assume that a referendum in Northern Ireland would lead directly to unification with the republic to the south. Protestants still are in the majority in the North, 3 to 2, and Catholics have enough awareness of the British government subsidies for Northern Ireland so as to temper their nationalism when they are in the privacy of the voting booth.
The real question is how Northern Ireland can grow out of its adamant majoritarianism into a genuinely pluralist society with room for both those who think of themselves as Irish and those who think of themselves as British. And that's where leadership is needed on the unionist side.