'The most significantly decisive expression of political opinion in Ireland since the 1921 Anglo-Irish Treaty'
IN THE aftermath of the Irish referendums north and south, the landscape has changed. The Republic has overwhelmingly embraced the proposals, and if the ice-cap of Ulster unionism has not melted as far as forecast in the post-Good Friday euphoria, Ireland's political geology has still shifted; and this will be accommodated into that ancient land-mass.

Ulster Nationalists have fully endorsed the Easter agreement; enough Unionists have acquiesced for a convincing overall majority. If many remained reluctant to accept the deal worked out between the SDLP, the official Unionists, Sinn Fein and both governments, there were two major reasons: Sinn Fein's refusal to give way on decommissioning the IRA arsenal, and the temporary release of IRA murderers so that they could receive the jaw-droppingly inappropriate accolade of "our Nelson Mandelas" from Gerry Adams, at his most sanctimonious.

The subsequent appearance of a notorious sectarian murderer at a Loyalist rally may have been intended as a heavy-handed reassurance, but it hardly worked out that way. Perhaps the northern palate was too jaundiced for Blairite feel-good politics to sweep all before them; maybe a "Third Way" was rather too alien a concept for that oppositional political culture to embrace wholeheartedly in a few short weeks. But we have still seen the most significantly decisive expression of political opinion in Ireland since the endorsement of the 1921 Anglo-Irish Treaty.

In the euphoria of Easter Saturday, Seamus Heaney wrote in the Irish Times about a creative sense of "transcendence and reconciliation" reminiscent of the conclusion to Shakespeare's play, The Tempest. Little enough of that had survived by the time Ulster went to the polls.

In the negotiations over the 1921 Anglo-Irish Treaty, the stumbling block was not the expected difficulty of partition, but a comparatively rarefied issue - the wording of the oath of fidelity to the monarch. Similarly over the last month, the sticking point became not the actual constitutional and political stipulations, but the emotional issue of prisoner release. But the rhetoric surrounding Friday's result should not be allowed to obscure the underlying realities.

One is that the Easter deal injected a blood transfusion into what might be called (in a 19th-century locution) "Liberal Unionism"; and, for all Mr Paisley's apparent gains over the past few weeks, this will endure. The other reality is equally significant. With the huge majority for constitutional change in the southern referendum radically diluting the old territorial claim on the North, irredentist nationalism in the Republic has taken its last bow. And with his support of the agreement Gerry Adams has carried a surprising proportion of traditionalist northern Republicans with him in a large step towards accepting realities.

The misfired strategy of temporarily releasing the Balcombe Street gang was, ironically, unnecessary: the Sinn Fein ard-fheis was already lined up behind the agreement. The point is that the rodomontade on Republican platforms, the stonewalling on decommissioning, Adams's pious idiocy of equating the IRA's giving up their weapons to the police and army relinquishing theirs: all this is the necessary pill-sugaring which must accompany the strong draught of castor-oil that was swallowed on Good Friday.

Sinn Fein has accepted that the border stays. It would co-operate with unionists in a six-county government. North-south bodies, where they exist, are to be kept deliberately vague in their remit. The republic has resoundingly voted to convert its "constitutional imperative" towards a united Ireland into a wistful but distant aspiration (make us good, dear God, but not yet). Unionists are secure for as long as their pro-union majority lasts (and on that issue, simple majorities continue to rule).

And, since Mr Blair's tough talking in Ulster a week before the referendum, the IRA's arms must go before any kind of political power becomes available. In the end, old-style United Irelanders are left reliant on the lonely refuge of their pious belief in outbreeding Protestants: and that particular panacea (or threat) has been a staple of Neanderthals on both sides for as long as anyone can remember.

The audacious decision to put across the agreement as something in line with old-style nationalism (in which the government of the Republic rather uneasily colluded) worked all too well. Even when two veteran Republican activists from the 1960s - Bernadette Devlin McAliskey and Eamonn McCann - opposed it, their arguments showed that they were marooned in never- never land.

She complained that united Ireland was not immediately delivered; he based his opposition on the ground that the agreement did not do away with "sectarianism" (some chance). After 30 years, most of their comrades have a firmer grasp on reality than that. But the highly-coloured terms in which some Ulster unionists said no helped Adams to present the proposed arrangements as a victory for "the struggle" - much as he osten- tatiously greeted the ceasefire of August 1996 with flowers and champagne, as a "triumph" for the Republican redoubt of West Belfast.

Still, what both the ceasefire and the agreement represented was a recognition of realities which have long been with us, and which remain. Certain elements in Northern Ireland have never been adept at realising realities, and the no campaign demon- strated this yet again. It is equally significant that Paisleyite no-sayers should have been echoed by voices from the wilder shores of unreconstructed Republicanism. This too demonstrates that what we are seeing is another stage in the fissile history of Irish nationalism which has always blended flexible and imaginative political strategy with a substratum of true-believer fundamentalism.

Irish history is sometimes written as if constitutional aspirations and revolutionary extremism appear turn-and-turn-about on the stage, one mode taking over when the other temporarily retires into the wings. In fact, the process is not an oscillating pendulum from one to the other, but a constant balancing act.

Thus in the 1840s Daniel O'Connell, leader of the parliamentary movement for the repeal of the Act of Union (and wedded to the idea that no measure of independence was worth shedding a drop of blood) had to adapt his rhetoric - and his tactics of threat and blood - to the more extreme Young Ireland group on his flank. In the 1870s, when Isaac Butt founded the constitutional movement for Home Rule, he got it off the ground with the covert blessing of the revolutionary Fenian movement, which gave him three years' clear run to see what he could do within the parameters of Westminster.

The greatest tightrope-walker of all was Butt's successor as Home Rule leader, Charles Stewart Parnell, who engaged both publicly and covertly in a dialogue with the Fenians, and whose speeches in America ran very close to endorsing the "armed struggle": though the parliamentary strategy apparently promised far more real gains by the mid-1880s, the end of his career found him playing the same game. And his successor John Redmond was put in much the same position vis-a-vis radical nationalism in the years running up to the First World War.

The pattern has recurred in the 20th century. With the Irish revolution from 1916 to 1921, Sinn Fein and the IRA gained the ascendancy; but even at the height of the struggle, a strong element in the revolutionary coalition wanted to canvass the political path. The 1921 Treaty was a compromise between accepting established realities, including (as a face-saver) partition, and a continuing relationship with the Commonwealth. The inevitable Republican split followed, and civil war.

But throughout the 1920s, as the new state was built, the ex-revolutionaries in power sustained an uneasy relationship with their armed ex-comrades, and adapted constitutional forms and agreements to enable the evolution of a democratic and bi-partisan structure. When the leaders of the irreconcilables, Eamon de Valera, gave up the gun and formed his "slightly constitutional" party, Fianna Fail in 1926, he was put in the same position. The Republican rump split again; but the process of constitutional change, through the pacific but effective means of Commonwealth conferences, enabled Ireland to declare itself a Republic in 1948. It may not have been "the Rock of the Republic" on which the all-or-nothing revolutionaries had taken their uncomfortable and increasingly isolated stance. But they had seen that ostensibly solid ground consistently eroded over the decades, as realism seeped in and their activities turned to "politics".

Thus the IRA split in 1970, between the "officials" who wanted to pursue socialist politics from a democratic base, and the fundamentalist "Provisionals", was only the most recent exposure of a fault-line in the history of modern Irish nationalism. True to precedent, the "official" soul - after several name changes - has migrated to a left-wing constitutional party in the Republic. History may show that in 1998 Adams and McGuinness, hard-line Provisionals in 1970, took their own step towards the centre, recognising that negotiations and compromise, damned by Re- publicans as Satan's blandishments, may have a better record of achieving national goals than the purist faith in bomb and bullet.

And again, according to strict precedent, they may leave behind a few irreconcilable colleagues fixed on an imaginary, lopsided and anti-democratic Green-and-Gaelic utopia that could only be achieved by ruthless ethnic cleansing, and a determined ignorance of the seismic changes that have happened in Ireland, north and south, over the past 30 years.

One index of those changes is the very nature of a future Ireland in Europe. As the distinguished Irish lawyer Conor Gearty has sardonically pointed out, under the agreement any united Ireland which may subsequently arrive would, besides having to observe the Britishness of the unionist community, be inextricably linked to the constituent parts of the neighbouring island through the British-Irish council.

It would also be Europeanised in terms of currency, passport controls, legal structures and cross-national organisations - the kind of process which the Republic has so enthusiastically and profitably embraced over the past 20 years (and which has, proportionately, altered it beyond recognition from the irrelevant images of the "Free State" cherished so long by both communities in Northern Ireland). Perhaps one criticism that might have been more reasonably levelled at the agreement is that the concepts of a British Northern Ireland, or a totally independent united Ireland, are equally and increasingly anachronistic.

A recognition of change, and of the inadequacy of relying on received and ancient images, may be one of the things which unites the people who negotiated the agreement, and who have stuck by it. This also necessitates a generosity of spirit not always shown in their public utterances: possibly, once again, because of the necessity to sugar pills and manufacture fudge.

What endures from the referendum campaign is the image of people whose lives have been randomly ruined by terrorist violence, who may have known little or nothing of Northern Ireland before some atrocity ripped their lives apart, and who yet travelled to Belfast or got up on to platforms to argue - along with Sinn Fein - the case for acceptance. Diana Hamilton- Fairley's father was murdered ("by mistake") in an operation carried out by those very "Mandelas". But she has pleaded the case for looking forward instead of back, along with other victims of the brutal violence of the past 30 years, such as Colin Parry, John Maxwell, and the enduringly inspirational figure of the late Jane Ewart-Biggs, who nearly a quarter of a century ago turned her husband's assassination into the basis for a campaign to increase understanding between Britain and Ireland.

In the great saloon-bar conversation in James Joyce's novel Ulysses where "the Citizen" interrogates Leopold Bloom about nationalism and Irishness, Joyce's humanist hero finally puts an end to it: "But it's no use. Force, hatred, history, all that. That's not life for men and women, insult and hatred. And everybody knows that it's the very opposite of that that is really life."

Even those of us who are temperamentally sceptics have seen a window open, through the mechanisms of the agreement, whereby political and civic conditions in Northern Ireland might be enabled to reflect "what really is life". The result of the referendum in the Republic is a powerful endorsement of reality, and a political path which might follow it more closely; the people of Northern Ireland more cautiously but still decisively, have made their own decision too. Reality, and life, have a way of imposing themselves in the end.

Roy Foster, author of 'Modern Ireland 1600-1972', is Professor of Irish History at Oxford University. The first volume of his biography of WB Yeats was published last year.