Ulster: Time to Push On

In Northern Ireland's slow-motion struggle between Protestants and Catholics, the short term seems always with us. The long term - peaceful settlement - appears to recede just out of reach as the two sides wrestle for advantage.

Once more, that frustrating - and tantalizing - picture faces the British and Irish governments as they get one side, Sinn Fein, near the bargaining table only to see the other, Protestant Unionists, balk in suspicion.

But to give in to pessimism would be as foolhardy as living by the old math conundrum that if you repeatedly walk half the distance to a door you will never get through it. Too much is at stake for that kind of thinking. Namely: normality of life for 1.7 million predominantly peaceable people in Northern Ireland, the lives of innocents randomly hit by bombs in Britain, and the ability of London and Dublin to get on with normal trade, growth, and shaping European union.

Britain's fresh new Blair government was right to take away the IRA terrorists' excuse for continuing their savage bombing campaign by agreeing to separate talks about decommissioning weapons. London and Dublin were also right to say Sinn Fein would not be admitted to the peace talks until the IRA cease-fire had held over the next six weeks. (That's no sure guarantee, as the IRA's previous breaking of its own cease-fire showed. But it tends to reinforce restraint.)

Now it's up to the understandably wary moderate Unionists to stay in the talks and test Sinn Fein's willingness to seek a compromise that could build relations between the opposing communities - as they have been built between Britain and Eire through the years.

Two factors will shape the ultimate outcome. One is demographics. The Catholic community in Northern Ireland, now a 43 percent minority, is gaining in population proportion. Over time, this creates pressure on today's majority Protestants not to wait too long. The second factor is the history of revolutions. Terrorists, like the notorious French Jacobins, cannot survive any degree of success without losing their bitter momentum. A solid majority of the very population group for which they fight invariably opts for normal life, given a decent opportunity.

Working with those factors, it's up to Britain and Eire to corral the two belligerents into a sequence of confidence-building measures. Their test is under way now. In order to get serious consideration of such confidence- building they must get both sides to the bargaining table this September.

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