Belfast, Northern Ireland -- A Protestant businessman cautions against over-optimism about the prospects for peace in Northern Ireland:
''How would you feel about peace and reconciliation with people who have killed your wife and children and destroyed your business with bombs planted in the center of cities? Would you be willing to kiss and make up so quickly?''
The question introduces a note of realistic caution into what could be an impractical peace fast track.
A record Christmas sales season (the second-largest sales volume in the United Kingdom) has inflated optimism in the opinion polls to the highest level since ''The Troubles'' began 25 years ago.
For many Americans, reconciliation is simply a matter of antagonists conferring, forgetting their troubles past and getting happy. That approach often does not work and brings new troubles that may be greater than the old. Just imagine, for a comparison, that American authorities decided not to pursue those who attack abortion clinics while negotiations are held between pro-lifers and pro-choicers. The animosities here are as deep-seated.
While the leader of Sinn Fein, Gerry Adams, shuttles to the United States to meet with officials and do talk shows, British Prime Minister John Major correctly holds the line against overconfidence by requiring of the terrorists that ''substantial progress'' be made on the relinquishing of arms in the IRA's considerable arsenal before a political settlement over the future of Northern Ireland and its relationship to the Irish Republic is discussed.
So far, Mr. Adams has not made such a pledge, and Mr. Major told a year-end interviewer on the BBC that ''it will need to be more than a promise'' before talks advance beyond their current preliminary stage.
The Rev. Ian Paisley, the fiery leader of one Protestant faction, said in a New Year's message, ''Peace cannot be erected upon a 'peace process' which does not exist. No compromise can be made with liars unless we believe their lies.''
Yet opinion polls show that a large majority believe peace in Northern Ireland is at hand. Prime Minister Major says such positive thinking can have an effect on opinion within Sinn Fein, too. Others express less optimism and more caution.
In the Irish Independent newspaper, columnist Conor Cruise O'Brien, writes from Dublin that the tragedy of Northern Ireland is that the two parties lay claim to it, but neither really wants it: ''The British want a way out, if they could find one. We in the Republic want a united Ireland . . . but we don't want the united Ireland of reality, with its actual people and the actual relations between those actual people.''
Even the Sinn Fein and the IRA, he notes, don't want the Northern Ireland of present-day realities. They want its territory, ''with the majority of its people beaten -- or 'persuaded' -- into submission. They are not going to get that, or even a promise of that, in 1995.''
What will the factions do when they realize that they can't get what they say they want by peaceful means. Will they return to terror?
Some Protestant people think they will. ''I don't give it much past February,'' one told me at a New Year's Eve party in a suburban Belfast home.
Still, no killing is no killing. It may not be peace, but it is better than what has gone on for more than a generation.
Cal Thomas is a syndicated columnist.