Truce Tango in Northern Ireland

October 17, 1994

If the idea of Yasser Arafat as a "peace" laureate makes you queasy, wait till next year: Nobels for Gerry Adams and Ian Paisley?

Protestant para-military forces have joined the Irish Republican Army in a cease-fire in Northern Ireland. The tango of death is suspended. Even in Northern Ireland, it takes two to tango. Murder evoked reprisal murder, and now truce begets truce. It took so long because for a quarter-century both tribes thought they could win. Neither was interested in peace when victory seemed possible.

"Tribes" is the appropriate word. The sides are often called "Catholic" and "Protestant" for shorthand or for insult ("Papists!" "Prods!"), but what divides them is not religious understanding. Tribal identity is born of a harsh history and a fearful future. The province's 650,000 Catholics want to join the Republic of Ireland; the 950,000 Protestants want to remain British.

Within these tribes the terrorists were always a minority, but they exercised a veto over the peacemakers. Nearly 20 years ago the Rev. Mr. Paisley experimented briefly with conciliatory politics, but his influence and prestige waned. So he returned to tried-and-true obstructionism and bigotry. Northern Irish Catholics, for their part, added the word "kneecapping" to our language's vocabulary. The IRA dealt with Catholics it regarded as appeasers by shooting them in the legs with intent to cripple, not kill. The victim's permanent limp was thought to provide a cautionary lesson for other potential backsliders.

Weakness at last has forced the warriors to pick up the olive branch. Last year Mr. Adams, leader of the IRA's political party, Sinn Fein, saw his support ebbing toward a more moderate Catholic political leader, John Hume. Mr. Adams thereupon reinvented himself as a man of peace and has been lionized in Boston and New York and other hotbeds of Irishdom, though not in Dublin.

Once the IRA guns fell silent on Sept. 1, only one holdout to peace remained. The Protestants waited six weeks to see if Catholics really could change their spots. They tried with provocations to encourage Catholic lapses from grace. At last on Thursday flinty old Gusty Spence, convicted murderer and founder of the Protestant vigilantes known as the Ulster Volunteer Force, appeared at a news conference under orange banners and Union Jacks and read a statement about "new beginnings" and "respect . . . [for] differing views."

The tango is a complicated dance. The next steps will be orchestrated in Dublin and London -- a "framework" document to guide peace talks, then a referendum in Northern Ireland. Lasting peace won't come easily to a 300-year-old hatred. But it couldn't come at all until the killing stopped. If this be peace, make the most of it.

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