ARE we seeing a fundamental change in the political climate of Northern Ireland - or merely a sunny patch of promising weather before the storm erupts again?
There's good reason to believe that, a generation or two hence, this period will be seen as one of bright new directions, when political maneuvering replaced violence.
In recent days, British Prime Minister John Major and Irish Prime Minister Albert Reynolds have kept up their efforts on Northern Ireland, albeit at long range with each on separate trips abroad. To assure unionists, Mr. Major has reiterated that the results of any future peace talks would be put to a referendum in the province. For republicans, he has opened 10 border crossings into the Irish Republic and removed the ban on the voices of Sinn Fein spokesmen being broadcast in Britain.
Mr. Reynolds, though an advocate of moving forward quickly with talks, has sought to put a realistic time frame on any change in Northern Ireland's political status. ``Let the people decide if they want a change,'' he said, ``and if in 25 years' time or 20 years' time or whatever, they feel there's more benefit that way than the other, well fine, let them make the decision.''
Wisely said. A rush to a settlement would do more harm than good. Northern Ireland needs a period in which its people can experience life without shootings and bombings, without an occupying army, and with more jobs and prosperity. In this better climate, some new self-rule scheme - not yet devised or debated - might be possible. It could provide a comfort level on both sides that would make nominal rule under either Britain or Ireland acceptable to the majority of both Catholics and Protestants.
Today, unprecedented steps toward a brighter future are under way. Both republicans and unionists are heading to the United States to lobby. This is the new ``war,'' a war of words aimed at winning the international community to their positions. Someday, it will be a war of ballots and votes, a time to choose how to best express a sense of national identity.
It is the only ``war'' in Northern Ireland that has ever made sense.