Cooling off period in Northern Ireland Marches end: Chance for communities to weigh virtues of accord vs. discord.

August 19, 1996

THE MARCHING SEASON in Northern Ireland frayed nerves, undid progress and risked catastrophe. But it ended without torching sustained civil strife and disorder on the model of a quarter-century ago. Perhaps events have hit bottom and are poised to go up.

The standoffs were a testament to the power of peace: Extremists leading trouble-making cohorts among both Protestant and Catholic communities acted as if they feared peace might break out on terms other than their maximalist demands -- and tried to prevent it.

The Irish and British governments are in lock-step that Sinn Fein, the party of the IRA, cannot take part in all-party talks on resuming constitutional life until the IRA declares a permanent cease-fire. Sinn Fein can cite the recent election to prove it commands the loyalty of 15 percent of the provincial population, so that talks without it would not be all-party talks.

So while the IRA has refrained from sufficient violence to provoke the Loyalist militia into a reverse murder campaign, it can prevent peace talks and is doing so. This stems from the sound conviction that successful talks would leave it without a role and without having accomplished political-fantasy aims. No one is proposing a single Irish nation-state now.

None of the political paralysis strikes a blow at Britain, a comparatively powerful country the economy of which is not held back by this provincial disturbance. The country harmed is the Irish Republic, which is small and fragile by comparison and highly sensitive to world perceptions of security and stability on its island.

Until more confidence is built, the best way forward would not be a hasty resumption of formal talks, so much as aggressive informal chat between the two governments and between the Irish Republic government and the Ulster Unionist Party of Northern Ireland.

That party's leader, David Trimble, put himself at the head of provocative demands during the recent tensions, if only to retain leadership of the Protestant community. Now that he enjoys that leadership, it's about time he did something constructive with it.

Pub Date: 8/19/96

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