One year ago, Northern Ireland's communal strife looked like the danger that secessionist republics of Yugoslavia were courting. Now, Bosnia-Herzegovina stands as the worst-case scenario of what the divided province might become.
Northern Ireland has been immobilized for two decades under a constant level of violence, with frozen politics and direct rule from London. Now, intricate negotiations are under way that just might design a future in which all its people could comfortably live.
Any settlement of Northern Ireland's problems must provide places for two national traditions, Irish and British. It must frame three sets of relations: between the two communities in Northern Ireland, between the two parts of Ireland, and between the two main British Isles.
Three sets of negotiations, therefore, are contemplated. The seemingly cumbersome enterprise is moving swiftly. The first "strand" is among four main elected political parties of Northern Ireland, Protestant and Catholic, loyalist and nationalist, British and Irish. They all know each other. If there is ever to be an autonomous Northern Ireland again, they must all be part of it.
The second and most dramatic strand has begun. These four parties are talking to the Dublin government. After the partition of Ireland in 1921, provincial Belfast wanted such talks, which independent Dublin refused. In modern times it has been the other way round. But now the dialogue has begun, moderated by a retired Australian jurist. This is the arena of possible breakthrough. The third strand, between the Dublin and London governments, is the easiest and will begin last. Dublin and London can agree to anything their constituents can.
The key is that no strand's agreement is binding until all are. A trade-off can be made in one strand for a concession in another. For instance, the Unionists might concede in Strand One TC power-sharing role for minority parties while Dublin might agree in Strand Three to amend its territorial claim to Northern Ireland into an aspiration, with legitimacy for both Irish and British citizenships and a guarantee to respect majority sentiment.
None of this would get the IRA to stop shooting. Neither the IRA nor its political arm, Sinn Fein, are in the talks. Sinn Fein speaks for some 10 percent of the Northern Ireland electorate and arguably belongs there, but refuses to renounce violence to qualify. A settlement supported by most of the people, however, would isolate both the IRA and loyalist die-hards.
At a time of increased terrorism in Northern Ireland by IRA and loyalist paramilitary thugs, these talks offer quiet hopes of a way out that can be fair to all.