PRESIDENT Clinton's recent decision to lift the ban on official
contacts between the United States and the political wing of the
Irish Republican Army (IRA), Sinn Fein, suggests that Northern
Ireland could follow South Africa and the Middle East on the fast
track to peace.
Coming just five weeks after the IRA cease-fire, the Clinton
administration's decision immediately elevated Sinn Fein leader
Gerry Adams to a new level of respectability. A man who several
months ago was viewed as the mastermind of the IRA's bombing
campaign against soldiers and civilians gave a news conference on
the US Capitol steps, dined with members of Congress, and even
appeared on Larry King Live.
The administration seems to be saying that it believes the IRA
cease-fire will be permanent.
Two realities have tipped the IRA toward a strategy of peace -
for now. But enormous political progress will have to be made
before that peace can be considered permanent. The first reality is
that the status of the Catholic community has risen dramatically
within the last quarter-century. The second reality is that the
IRA's shooting war against the British has dragged on just as long
without a victory.
Catholics in Northern Ireland have benefited from universal
access to public education, bolstered by social legislation
initiated in the 1970s. These changes have helped create a large
Catholic middle class and a new generation of political leaders.
Both are the mainstay of the Social Democratic and Labour Party
(SDLP), whose effectiveness in pursuing Irish unity by peaceful
means has made it the most influential nationalist party in
Northern Irish history. Adding to the Catholic community's enhanced
status is the evolution of British policy toward acknowledging the
aspirations for Irish unity.
The first official step in this direction came in 1985 with the
Anglo-Irish Agreement, in which the British government accepted the
SDLP view that the constitutional status of Northern Ireland cannot
be resolved without involving the Republic of Ireland. In return,
the Irish government conceded that Northern Ireland would remain
British as long as the majority voted to do so. Last year's Downing
Street Declaration, issued by the British and Irish governments,
took an important second step by offering to include Sinn Fein in
talks about Northern Ireland's future - if the IRA would call a
The unionist parties, who represent the Protestant majority,
opposed both the Anglo-Irish Agreement and the Downing Street
Declaration, while much of the political credit for both
achievements has gone to SDLP leader John Hume. He, in turn, enjoys
warm support from the Irish government and the Clinton
Shooting war failed
These developments have placed democratic nationalists in their
strongest political position in 50 years, giving real weight to the
claim that the best route to Irish unity is the political process.
The IRA has been forced to confront the fact that it did not win
its shooting war against the British and it was not likely to
succeed in driving out the 18,000 British troops now stationed