In the wake of the recent Irish Republican Army (IRA) bombing of the British Army barracks in Lisburn, Northern Ireland teeters between the reality of a bitter past and the hope of a brighter future.
It can slip back into the spiral of terror and violence that has scarred much of its last 25 years. Or it can leave "the Troubles" behind by moving forward on a path of peace that promises a better life for all its people.
Despite the outrageous act of terrorism at Lisburn, there are signs of hope and progress. Start with the peace talks under way just outside of Belfast at Stormont Castle - the seat of Northern Ireland's government before the imposition of direct rule by London in 1972. Once the embodiment of a sadly divided society, Stormont today can become the symbol of a new commitment to dialogue and reconciliation.
Led by George Mitchell, former majority leader of the US Senate, and his two co-chairmen from Canada and Finland, the British and Irish governments and nine political parties made important decisions on rules and procedures during the first session of the talks, which lasted until late July. They returned to the table on Sept. 9 after a difficult summer. And despite the Lisburn bombing, they reached an agreement last week on a comprehensive agenda that will allow negotiations to advance to the next step.
But the greatest proof and hope that Northern Ireland's future can be different than its past comes from the people themselves. They want peace. While the hundreds of thousands of men, women, and children who filled the streets and squares were cheering President Clinton on his historic trip to Belfast and Londonderry almost one year ago, they were also giving voice to their hope for a day of real reconciliation - a day when they will all live in neighborhoods without walls and the two vibrant traditions of Northern Ireland will flourish side-by-side.
That hope found its fullest expression in the 17-month cease-fire that President Clinton played a key role in achieving - the longest in the history of "the Troubles." Hundreds of lives were spared. We will never know their names or neighborhoods, much less their political loyalties or religious affiliations.
But for all that, they are alive today. And so is the hope for a lasting peace. Even with the breach of the cease-fire by the IRA last February, the renewed sectarian strife over the summer, and the attack two weeks ago, there has been no return to full-scale violence - and there must not be.
None of this is to argue away the tremendous difficulties that lie ahead. But make no mistake. The vast majority of the people of Northern Ireland want peace.
Now it falls to their leaders to tip the balance between history and hope at the Stormont talks. They must agree on how to end a violent conflict - including how to handle the weapons that have helped to fuel it. And they must devise a workable government for Northern Ireland as well as develop relations both between North and South and between the United Kingdom and Ireland.
The talks will have the greatest chance to succeed if all the parties - including Sinn Fein - are sitting at the same table. It can only happen after the IRA restores its cease-fire. Those who would reimpose the hard days of the past can have no legitimate role in deciding Northern Ireland's future.
Loyalist leaders have shown brave resolve in maintaining their cease-fire. They have not allowed the Lisburn attack to provoke them into a futile resort to violence. If they can uphold a cease-fire and remain open to dialogue, surely the IRA can do the same. The only true solution to the conflict lies in painstaking negotiation - in breaking down barriers and building up ties - and in working together to create a better life that all citizens of Northern Ireland can share.
The Clinton administration remains firmly committed to supporting that goal. Our aim is to help the people reach a just and lasting peace of their own choosing. We are neither in favor of a united Ireland nor opposed to the idea. But we are determined to continue helping the people of Northern Ireland and the British and Irish governments as they take risks for the peace that they themselves must build.
The ways of the past provide no way forward. They must be rejected. The people of Northern Ireland have made their choice clear. Now is not the time to return to the days of the bullet and the bomb, but to continue seeking to end those days once and for all.
*Anthony Lake is President Clinton's national security adviser.