Yet, the IRA's campaign has, despite its length, been remarkably unsuccessful in gaining support. The short-lived 1916 Easter Rising, though initially deeply unpopular, eventually won over many people. In contrast, backing for the IRA these days is dwindling. Most Irish nationalists, north and south of the border, disapprove both of the IRA's political ends and its military strategy. Republicanism is now narrowly based, confined largely to northern urban ghettos, where physical separation of the two confessions has grown increasingly acute.
The period has been marked by a breakthrough not by the IRA but in the British-Irish relationship. Traditionally, the respective governments competed over Northern Ireland: today they usually co-operate. The Irish Republic is modernising itself. Its politicians have dropped nationalist rhetoric as its people have grown weary of Northern Ireland. Meanwhile, Britain only reluctantly administers a province that has lost strategic and economic value.
The failures of the IRA and this change of heart in both countries offers a chance for moderation. A key figure in seizing this opportunity is John Hume, leader of the SDLP. He has defined a pragmatic, flexible nationalism, with appeal on both sides of the border and to many in Westminster. He is now trying to draw the IRA away from violence and into constitutional politics. Mr Hume is also the first nationalist leader to recognise that Unionist aspirations must be fully accommodated and not ignored or outvoted.
The Irish troubles in the 1990s have much in common with those of the 1880s. Back then, Charles Stewart Parnell managed to unite Irish nationalism under one constitutional banner. He struck up a close relationship with Gladstone's Liberal government. The Fenians, precursors of today's IRA, were won over by Parnell. They forswore violence after their failed rebellion of 1867. The stage was set for Home Rule, a major constitutional change.
It was never implemented, partly because of Unionist alienation and partly because of vacillation by Britain. Eventually, Ireland was engulfed by the Easter Rising, a civil war, and was partitioned. However, the period when Home Rule seemed possible was perhaps the closest Ireland has come to a political solution of its problems. The lesson for today's politicians is that a broad coalition - wresting the IRA from violence and securing a future to which both Unionists and nationalists alike can aspire - is needed for a lasting peace.Reuse content