Even after 25 years, our ignorance about the IRA is almost total

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WHEN A WAR ends, they switch on the lights again. In May 1945, they turned on the illuminations in Piccadilly Circus, and a pretty, squiffy actress named Zoe Gail sang from a balcony the old song about 'when the lights go up in London town . . .'

When a ceasefire happens, the lights also go on. Suddenly, after 25 years of darkness in Northern Ireland, we all find out where we have got to. Enemies are not where we thought they were, and turn out not to look as we expected them to look. The same is often true about friends. It will take a fair time - months rather than weeks - to stop blinking and to take in all these surprises. But one thing is all too clear already. 'Informed opinion', after blundering round in circles, had long ago become hopelessly lost.

The Provisional IRA's ceasefire was rumoured and then heralded and then announced, and yet nobody knew what to make of it. A crew of politicians knew what they could make out of it - a different matter - and launched barrages of long-prepared verbiage. But neither they nor anyone else knew the answer to the central question: why did the Provisionals call off the shooting?

Was it out of strength, because the republican movement now feels strong enough to fight in the political arena with a real hope of success? Or was it out of weakness because an admission of defeat had to be disguised as a change of strategy? Listening to media discussions last week, I was staggered to discover that nobody had the faintest idea. Plenty of commentators offered wild hypotheses, much as if they had been asked why dinosaurs had ceased to roam and bite. But nobody really knew. Not to be able to answer so elementary a question means that, after 25 years, British (and Irish) ignorance about the IRA is almost total.

The lights go on again, and it is not perverse but entirely natural that the first question was: how long for? But the IRA cannot promise 'permanence', which would turn a ceasefire into a surrender. It is silly bluster to object to negotiating 'under the threat of a return to violence'. The threat is simply a fact of life, not an example of IRA malignity. If the British and the Unionists and Sinn Fein together bungle this chance to reach a peaceful political relationship, then violence will quite certainly recur.

In that sense, the threat of a return to violence is in the armoury of every group concerned in the peace process. Each partner - the British and Irish governments, the Unionist and nationalist parties - could ensure a relapse into bloodshed by its own obstinacy or stupidity. Only all together can they make a ceasefire into a lasting peace.

During the quarter-century of darkness, new generations grew up in Northern Ireland. People in both 'cultural traditions' have become wiser, better off and more independent in spirit. Until now, politicians have claimed noisily to know what they want and to speak for them. But the ceasefire, if it lasts, will allow them to find their own voice and to show how far they have grown away from the blind antagonisms of the 1970s.

My own most vivid memory of Northern Ireland is of the garden of a Belfast villa, during the 'Ulster Workers' Strike' of 1974. Inside sat the Protestant paramilitary godfathers, running the whole insurrection. Outside wandered the Unionist politicians who only yesterday had claimed to be the voice of loyalist Ulster. Giant braggarts stood humbly in the drizzle, waiting to be summoned in by Andrew Tyrie, the gangster and dreamer who commanded the Ulster Defence Association (UDA).

I saw then how swiftly the surface of Unionist politics could be turned over, allowing a quite different sort of opinion to assert itself. That time, it was for the worse. This time, with luck, it could be for the better. The Unionist community deserves to escape from the old 'No Surrender' clique. Most Protestants now live in an open, modern world full of pleasures and possibilities. They are entitled to have politicians who also belong to that world.

So is the Catholic/nationalist community. They too have matured in the last quarter-century. Nobody should imagine that Gerry Adams proposed the ceasefire out of respect for public opinion; Conor Cruise O'Brien is right to laugh that idea out of court. The IRA was not 'war-weary', and its capacity to carry on the fight was, if anything, improving. But the republican movement (my own contribution to ignorant guesswork) seems genuinely to believe that political methods are now more likely to achieve a united Ireland than armed struggle. I think that this is quite mistaken. But it is a mistake for which we should all be grateful.

Ahead lies the old problem of building a devolved, power-sharing government for Northern Ireland. The basic question is brutally simple. What has the majority learnt from history? If British troops are withdrawn and direct London rule ends, can Unionist leaders at Stormont and in local government be trusted not to discriminate against the minority? All the entrenched clauses and bills of rights on earth are useless without the will not just to co-exist on equal terms but to work together on the task of modernising Northern Ireland. If power- sharing fails again, then off go the lights and on goes the bloodshed.

But even if the ceasefire holds and power-sharing works, Northern Ireland will not be suddenly transformed. The Orange Marches will go on, with their Union Flags and Lambeg drums. The republicans will still rally to commemorate the Easter Rising and Bloody Sunday, and Sinn Fein will go on preaching the cause of a united Ireland. Protestant and Catholic children will still go to segregated schools for the foreseeable future. Guns and ammunition, greased and hidden under floorboards, will take another generation to rust into uselessness.

What will have changed, if we are lucky, is the meaning of all that. There are not two nations but two cultural traditions in Northern Ireland. Each will cling to its rituals of identity, its martyrs and songs. But these rituals will gradually cease to be programmes for action. They will proclaim who people are and have been in the past, but no longer what they intend to do in the future. Eventually, if all goes well, they will be no more threatening than Guy Fawkes bonfires in English cities or Spanish pageants about the Moorish wars.

There is identity, and there is allegiance. The game now is to separate them, so that a woman in Derry can say: 'I feel myself an Irish Catholic, but Dublin is not my capital,' and a man in Carrickfergus can say: 'I am an Ulster Protestant, but that does not mean that I look to London for my orders.' Let the day come when Northern Ireland - a self-governing region in the European Union - will look to Brussels before London or Dublin. That day, the Troubles will finally be over.