Their political leader, John Hume of the Social Democratic and Labour Party, is a respected international figure who played a key part in bringing about the IRA cessation. He also played a major role, both as a politician and as a theorist, in internationalising the Irish question and ensuring that it would no longer be treated as a British domestic problem.
Thus a community which, until the Sixties, was marked by impotence, apathy and internal divisions has been gradually transformed. It is now part of a political Internet harnessing the power and influence of Dublin, Washington and Brussels. Long before the ceasefire it was a community on the way up, progressing not only politically but also in social and economic terms.
The ceasefire itself brought another leap in confidence for an already remarkably self-assured section of the population, which viewed republican violence as wrong-headed, outmoded and counter-productive. It now looks ahead to eventual political negotiations in which it believes the Unionists, and indeed the British, will be out-classed by Hume and the Irish government. It will be seeking a far-reaching agreement which for the first time would include Sinn Fein in an all-inclusive settlement, a deal which would underpin the peace by offering something for everyone. The framework documents were welcomed with quiet satisfaction.
From the start the general Catholic population was more ready than Protestants to believe that the IRA campaign was over, and readier to regard Sinn Fein as prodigals who had genuinely reformed.
Because of this belief Catholics in general have, like the Irish government, favoured a much faster pace in the peace process. They favour an active and dynamic process to bring Sinn Fein into the mainstream as quickly as possible.
Their chief area of concern is that the British government, by moving too slowly, could fatally damage the credibility of Gerry Adams with hardline republican elements who might then conclude that the peace process was a waste of time.
This fear has created much exasperation and irritation with the government, which moderate Catholics tend to hold in low regard and routinely criticise as a lumbering, ponderous, ill-coordinated and often unintelligent machine.
Within the republican community, the one-third of the Catholic population who vote for Sinn Fein, things are more complicated. There the British are suspected of having more sinister motives, principally of hoping to split the republican movement so that the violence could re-start and allow Britain the opportunity of achieving a military solution.
Such mistrust of Britain is endemic within republicanism, and Gerry Adams and other Sinn Fein leaders often accuse the government of bad faith and ulterior motives. But although there is much impatience there is no real sign, even within the hardline republican ghettos, of any significant body of opinion favouring a return to the war. That is not to say, however, that a handful of determined men might not appear somewhere and attempt to start the conflict again.
The IRA cessation has been surprisingly well-disciplined, but in a land so suffused with paramilitarism the process will always require careful management. The general Catholic mood, however, is not conducive to a resumption: it is one of thankfulness and relief that the guns have fallen silent, and of hope for the future. David McKittrickReuse content