The peace paradox: Northern Ireland will stay British but become more Irish

tCatholics celebrate tProtestants wary and cynical tLondon and Dublin find common ground tTalk of 'peace dividend'; Any deal in Ulster must somehow satisfy each side that it can get what it wants in the long term, writes David McKittrick
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Although the ultimate aspirations of the various elements involved in Northern Ireland are well enough known, what is about to be put to the test by today's ceasefire is what they might actually settle for, short of their ideal outcomes.

Gerry Adams and other Sinn Fein leaders have regularly reiterated that their ultimate aim remains a 32-county borderless Irish republic: they have not, in other words, ceased to be republicans.

The questions are whether they will be prepared to pursue their goals by non-violent means, and whether in, say, a year's time, they will rise from the table and announce they are returning to terrorism because a united Ireland is not on offer.

They will certainly not be renouncing their aims or offering up IRA guns; nor will they be in the business of shoring up either the state of Northern Ireland or the union with Britain, both of which they believe to have been miserable failures. It is a safe bet to say they will agree to nothing which closes off the prospect of Irish unity.

The point at issue is whether they are genuinely interested in working out what Gerry Adams once described as "interim phases and interim arrangements," a phrase which clearly implies settling, for a while at least, for something less than the Nirvana of unity.

While republicans would wish to move further and faster than the various other shades of Irish nationalism, their calculation is that, both inside and outside the talks, they could forge what has been called a pan-nationalist front to advance their aims.

Irish America and the White House form an important part of this equation, as do the Irish government and John Hume's Social Democratic and Labour party. Dublin and the SDLP both visualise a Northern Ireland which would be viewed as essentially an Anglo-Irish entity rather than, as Unionists used to term it, an integral part of the United Kingdom.

Nationalists have already had some success in establishing this concept, the Anglo-Irish agreement of 1985 having guaranteed Dublin a consultative role in many Northern Ireland matters. While Dublin, the SDLP and the Americans will never be as radical as Sinn Fein would like, all will thus be rowing in roughly the same direction.

That direction, which is towards ever-stronger north-south connections and a progressive weakening of the union, is of course anathema to Unionists, who want above all else to stay British and keep Irish unity at bay.

The problem for Unionists and Protestants, however, is that their representatives seem forever to be lagging behind nationalists in formulating long- term gameplans to achieve their objectives.

This is partly because of internal rivalries, with David Trimble's Ulster Unionists and the Rev Ian Paisley's Democratic Unionists locked perpetually in tactical struggles for electoral supremacy. But it is also partly because of the absence of a Unionist "big idea," with the potential of both uniting Unionists and winning the support of the outside world.

Without this, Unionism can often give the impression of being little more than the politics of the last ditch. In the coming talks, however, Unionist representatives - whether they are at the table or sending in messages from outside - will be attempting to ensure that the union is not weakened and Anglo-Irishry should not grow in strength.

While those are Unionist fundamentals, there is also a less obvious current which values IRA ceasefires in a way which most Unionist politicians do not usually publicly acknowledge. Senior Protestant business figures, for example, are much readier to contemplate negotiations with Sinn Fein than their political counterparts.

As for the two governments, Dublin and London have already established a great deal of common ground concerning the type of settlement which they envisage emerging from negotiations. The key objective of both is stability: of transforming Northern Ireland from its current volatile and periodically volcanic state into a quieter, more manageable state.

Their analysis of exactly how to do this will differ in many details, some of them important, but they seem to agree that the outcome of negotiations should be what appears on the surface to be a paradox: a continuing union with Britain, balanced by a stronger Irish dimension. Only in this way, the thinking goes, can both Unionists and nationalists be given a new and stabilising sense of ownership of the land they share.