IRA Ceasefire: For now, democracy is the real winner: Wise leaders can get beyond their first suspicions, can ride the crises to come . . .

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SO WHO WON? Not the IRA, for Northern Ireland will not be bundled into a new Irish Republic against its will, nor will there be a Vietnam-style military scuttle. Tricolours were waving yesterday all over the television screens and Sinn Fein will get its place in mainstream politics: but that might have been achieved 20 years ago had the civil rights movement not been diverted from political dissent and replaced by terrorism.

But if you think the Unionists have won, look at those hard and worried faces: these are not people who believe they have history on their side. The ideology of anti- Catholic Unionism, inflexible, introverted and mired in the past, has no future to look forward to. Its certainties cannot be recovered.

All our hopes must still be hedged around with caution: but it may be that the real winner is modern liberal democracy, the successful ideology that has replaced the politics of flag, soil and religion across so much of the world. There is a chance, at least, that Ulster will re-enter modern times and that politics there will come to be about hospitals, training programmes and environmentalism, not dead kings and rival theologies.

Yesterday those big questions were partly obscured by the nitty- gritty of politics. The devil has always been in the detail. So does the 'complete cessation' of violence mean 'for ever'? The word cessation was clearly carefully chosen. It means, according to the dictionary, a temporary or final stop. So the phrase is stronger than a mere 'suspension' of killing: but it contains its chink of darkness.

Why? John Major and the Unionists were quick to spot the ambiguity. It could just reflect the fear among IRA supporters of a backlash of Unionist violence so extreme that the nationalist gunmen would return to the fray, but this time protectively.

It could, however, mean that the IRA was standing, as it were, guns cocked, outside the door while negotiations continued. All sides would know that buried somewhere in the position papers of the Sinn Fein leaders would be a political bottom line which, if crossed, would lead straight to a resumption of murder. The Sinn Feiners would expect a special solicitude. They would be talking, but their words would be - almost literally - loaded.

So it is hardly surprising that the British government and the Unionists have leapt on that intolerable prospect. How serious, though, is it? In the real world, the IRA has given up something highly significant. Terrorism, like anything else, is a habit. After 25 years of bombing and shooting, it is expected. No one looks for justifications for this act of terror or that. The thing just goes on.

Once the IRA promises 'a complete cessation', however, the situation changes. Days pass, then weeks, then months. Whether or not Gerry Adams's actor stands up and says the word 'permanent', the world accustoms itself to the lack of violence, just as it had to the violence. It becomes harder to restart. The longer serious political talks go on, the harder violence becomes to justify to constituents, to Dublin, to America. Going back to bombing is much more difficult than going on bombing.

The argument over the wording of the IRA announcement, causing expressions of hurt and surprise on the Republican side and suspicion on the Unionist one, is just a taster of what is to come, even if things go well. Weapons stores . . . amnesties . . . INLA freelancers . . . troop numbers . . . there is ample scope for repeated crises. On all of this, some degree of mutual trust will be essential for political compromise. And in the early stages, there will be precious little.

If all that sounds tough, consider the even more awkward question of the relationship between violence and politics itself. Here is a truth too unpleasant to be universally acknowledged: war is fun. I don't mean that many people actually enjoy killing, still less being shot at. But for unemployed young males, the whole cloak-and-dagger business of secret armies, training in the hills, dodging the police, being inducted into an order which thinks itself elite, fills otherwise empty lives. Adrenalin, they say, is addictive, too. It may be that the terrorists of Ireland are separate enough from their proletarian base, and disciplined enough, for the culture of violence to be stoppable. But there is room for rational doubt.

So what matters now, what will determine whether this is the beginning of something wonderful or just the crest of another sickening let-down, is the quality of political leadership now shown. Wise leaders can get beyond their first mutual suspicions, can ride the crises that will come, can help to stifle the residual violence that must be a problem in unemployed and heavily armed communities. Bad leaders will fail in all these things.

So far as the national leaders are concerned, there is, at this stage, only praise to lavish. John Major had the real option of not engaging himself fully in the process that led up to the Downing Street declaration, and of not going quite as far to proclaim British neutrality as he did. To stand back, to be a little cooler, would have been the safer and, in a narrow sense, the more sensible option.

He refused to take it and his courage is part of the story that has brought Northern Ireland to this moment. If he were able to go to the electorate in 1996 having produced both three years or so of non-inflationary growth and with a transformed Northern Irish politics, then the old question - what is John Major for? - would have been pretty comprehensively answered. If it proved enough to win him that election, he would have earned his victory. In Dublin, Albert Reynolds and Dick Spring showed a like readiness to get their hands dirty in a cause that seemed at times hopeless.

Among the Northern Irish leaders, it is sufficient for the time being to say that the Unionist cause badly needs its John Hume. The prize for them is that they can make it virtually impossible for republicans to turn back to violence. They, and only they, can engage them in serious dialogue. And if they can do that, a return to cycles of murder and hopelessness may start to seem absurd. They can, in short, overcome their history. They will need, as I suggested yesterday, a new kind of courage. They will need a new kind of politics.

But on this day, of all days, even that starts to seem a plausible thing to hope for. Whatever happens now, whatever setbacks, disappointments and sudden crises are coming, nothing about Northern Ireland will seem inevitable ever again.