PRESIDENT Clinton's recent decision to lift the ban on official contacts between the United States and the political wing of the Irish Republican Army (IRA), Sinn Fein, suggests that Northern Ireland could follow South Africa and the Middle East on the fast track to peace.
Coming just five weeks after the IRA cease-fire, the Clinton administration's decision immediately elevated Sinn Fein leader Gerry Adams to a new level of respectability. A man who several months ago was viewed as the mastermind of the IRA's bombing campaign against soldiers and civilians gave a news conference on the US Capitol steps, dined with members of Congress, and even appeared on Larry King Live.
The administration seems to be saying that it believes the IRA cease-fire will be permanent.
Two realities have tipped the IRA toward a strategy of peace - for now. But enormous political progress will have to be made before that peace can be considered permanent. The first reality is that the status of the Catholic community has risen dramatically within the last quarter-century. The second reality is that the IRA's shooting war against the British has dragged on just as long without a victory.
Catholics in Northern Ireland have benefited from universal access to public education, bolstered by social legislation initiated in the 1970s. These changes have helped create a large Catholic middle class and a new generation of political leaders. Both are the mainstay of the Social Democratic and Labour Party (SDLP), whose effectiveness in pursuing Irish unity by peaceful means has made it the most influential nationalist party in Northern Irish history. Adding to the Catholic community's enhanced status is the evolution of British policy toward acknowledging the aspirations for Irish unity.
The first official step in this direction came in 1985 with the Anglo-Irish Agreement, in which the British government accepted the SDLP view that the constitutional status of Northern Ireland cannot be resolved without involving the Republic of Ireland. In return, the Irish government conceded that Northern Ireland would remain British as long as the majority voted to do so. Last year's Downing Street Declaration, issued by the British and Irish governments, took an important second step by offering to include Sinn Fein in talks about Northern Ireland's future - if the IRA would call a permanent cease-fire.
The unionist parties, who represent the Protestant majority, opposed both the Anglo-Irish Agreement and the Downing Street Declaration, while much of the political credit for both achievements has gone to SDLP leader John Hume. He, in turn, enjoys warm support from the Irish government and the Clinton administration.
Shooting war failed
These developments have placed democratic nationalists in their strongest political position in 50 years, giving real weight to the claim that the best route to Irish unity is the political process. The IRA has been forced to confront the fact that it did not win its shooting war against the British and it was not likely to succeed in driving out the 18,000 British troops now stationed there. The IRA could only fight a war of attrition, claiming the lives of yet another generation of Catholic youths and guaranteeing the presence of armed soldiers on northern streets.
This strategy is difficult to defend versus one of possible unification without further loss of life negotiated through the political process. After 25 years of bloodshed it is hard for the IRA to argue that war will bring unity faster than politics can.
For all these reasons, we can share the Clinton administration's hope that the current cease-fire will lead to a permanent peace. But it would be a serious mistake to minimize the obstacles. While the IRA has put down its guns and bombs, it has not renounced violence entirely. Brutal beatings of suspected informants within the Catholic community continue, and the organization has not lifted its death threats against other wrongdoers.
Extremists on either side could sabotage the cease-fire. The IRA has splintered over past cease-fires and could again. Protestant paramilitaries will hold their fire only as long as the IRA does. Both sides have a history of using insurrection and civil disobedience for political ends.
The uncertain rewards of politics pose the most dangerous obstacle to sustained peace. The British government has not yet accepted the cease-fire as permanent but, if it does, talks on a new form of government for Northern Ireland will begin. Even the most skilled negotiators will find it hard to reconcile Sinn Fein's demand for Irish unity with Protestant unionists' profound opposition to that arrangement.
The negotiators will also differ in their views of peace. For Sinn Fein, peace is not an end in itself but a strategy for achieving Irish unity. Others will see peace as more important than the distant question, ``Whither Ireland?'' There is a strong possibility that the talks will come to a standstill and that the IRA will write off a stalemated political process.
For now, the best hope for maintaining peace is to buy time for Sinn Fein and its antagonists on the unionist side to soften their positions. The British government cannot make major concessions toward Irish unity; its principles and its parliamentary majority are at stake. But it can continue to work with the Irish government, the SDLP, and the Clinton administration to persuade Sinn Fein that peace is the best course. This will take a cautious strategy: a reduced British Army presence, increased economic aid to the north, and gradual social and economic integration of the two Irelands.
Whether unionists can be persuaded to sit still for integration remains to be seen, but without it the IRA will have little patience for the slow tempo of peace.
The Opinion/Essay Page welcomes manuscripts. Authors of articles we accept will be notified by telephone. Authors of articles not accepted will be notified by postcard. Send manuscripts by mail to Opinions/Essays, One Norway Street, Boston, MA 02115, by fax to 617 -450-2317, or by Internet E-mail to OPED@RACHEL.CSPS.COM.