Mad Ireland should get real: Can we contemplate another 25 years of Troubles? Probably. We just feel stuck with Ulster

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THE TROOPS went into Northern Ireland 25 years ago next Sunday. They would, it was said on 14 August 1969, be back in the barracks by the weekend. The weekend never came.

A river of blood and a quarter of a century later, the poor bloody infantry are still patrolling the bleak, blasted streets, swivelling to watch their backs, cruising in their armoured 'pigs' and, from time to time, dying.

The insanity, imagery and political futility of Ulster now form the drab bass line of British awareness of the world. We know those streets; we know Lurgan, the Bogside, Creggan, Shankill; we know the IRA has made the City of London a defended enclave; we expect, as states of alert rise, to be searched and watched and, from time to time, we expect mainland bombs to remind us of the continuing presence of what Auden called 'Mad Ireland'. And we know that we support Ulster with pounds 4.4bn a year because . . . well, because that is the price of history.

Worst of all, we know we shall be hated for our spending, suffering and forbearance. Undereducated American dynasties will buy whatever line Sinn Fein puts out and, as one southern Irish commentator noted wryly, send any foreign journalist to Ulster and within hours he will be a hardline republican sympathiser. It is so easy. The Protestants are just so unattractive to the romantic-liberal imagination. This is, you see, an anti-colonial struggle fought against bowler-hatted Unionists and Brits with handlebar moustaches and, of course, everybody hates colonialism.

This Saturday the Troops Out Movement - Mike Mansfield, Tony Benn, Ken Loach among others - will propagate the same comfortable assessment with a demonstration in London. It seems we have, according to Troops Out, a concealed interest in keeping Ireland under our control, a hidden strategic agenda that keeps imperialist ambitions alive and drives us to perpetuate this bloody carnival. Indeed, the very fact that we pay the immense cost proves the point - we must want to be in Ulster. The British, after all, were colonialists, therefore they must still be colonialists and that is all you need to know about the Troubles.

Fine. Let's buy the whole anti- colonial package and pull out, confessing our guilt. Let's watch one million Unionists unite around their own paramilitaries, withdrawing to a defensible space of, say, four counties and ready to take on the other four million Irish. Let's watch the meagre southern army attempting to defend the Catholics in the border areas while 250,000 refugees - this is an official estimate - flood south. Let's watch the Irish economy collapse under the strain. This would be a civil war, tribal, savage and spuriously justified by the blood already spilt, a mini-Rwanda on our doorstep presided over by loyalist killers and the hypocritical mouthings of Gerry Adams and Martin McGuinness. We could do it, if we hated the Irish enough.

But we don't, incredibly we don't. After 25 years of Ireland at her maddest, the English still retain a startling level of affection for the Irish. They are literate, witty and they know how to have fun. Think of the advertising campaign for Murphy's stout that uses the roguish appeal of an Irish lad - such a campaign would be inconceivable if the Troubles had really blighted our affections. And tricolours flapped throughout London during the World Cup. Even I sweated out one Ireland match in a yuppie Docklands pub, the braying City dealers willing on Jack's boys as if they were their own.

Maybe I am being sentimental, but I am sure this would be inconceivable in almost any other country. As Gerry Fitt, that superhumanly brave man, has said, if only he could teach the Irish the tolerance of the English . . .

Clearly there is a high degree of self-censorship here. The British maintain their affection by not thinking about the Troubles, by deleting the killers and the mean streets from their imaginations, while Jack Charlton is on a roll or Murphy's stout is being sold. After 25 years who can blame us for regarding the daily violence as something like the weather - awkward but fundamentally unmanageable, our island destiny?

The problem is that affection and tolerance are not policies and neither, it appears, is anything else. A Byzantine tangle of initiatives, agreements and declarations defines the recent public life of Ireland, each effort collapsing for some ingeniously different reason. The present policy phase being conducted under the umbrella of the Downing Street Declaration is, since Sinn Fein's Letterkenny meeting, on the point of another disintegration - the one glimmer of hope being that the Americans may at last use their sentimental attachment to Ireland to some creative effect.

But it is only a glimmer. On this side of the Atlantic, London, John Hume and, even more so, Dublin now appear to have been dancing to the IRA tune. We fell for the line that they were 'war-weary' and held out a hand. Now, thanks to a long series of concessions - notably Dublin's lifting of its long-standing ban on allowing Sinn Fein access to broadcasting - Provisional morale is higher than ever. The killers have managed to look like good, earnest and sincere seekers after peace, and Adams has even gone to America.

It is thought possible that, in this process, the number of 'volunteers' - an exquisite euphemism - has trebled from 500 to 1,500. Suddenly terrorism looks like a going concern. This transformation makes it overwhelmingly in the nationalist interest to split every verbal hair they can find just as long as they can keep the 'peace process' going while reserving the right to kill a few Prods and squaddies.

Meanwhile Protestant anger rises dangerously. They see themselves being written out of history as a cantankerous inconvenience and feel desperation is justified. Their murderous scum now kill more than the nationalist psychos. More concessions and they could turn on the security forces - yet another route to an Irish meltdown.

This may not be new. Ever since the Troubles began the possibility of a total conflagration has appeared to be just around the corner. Somehow a grim balance has been maintained, the lid has been kept on just tightly enough for us to shrug our shoulders and drink the Murphy's.

But can anybody seriously contemplate another 25 years? Probably the British can. Whatever the Troops Out Movement says, there is no popular demand for a withdrawal. We just feel stuck with Ulster and, when the violence increases, we seem to want to get more rather than less involved. In truth, the next 25 years is not really a question for the British at all, it is a question for the South.

The behaviour of Dublin continues to be bizarrely lacking in self-interest. Perhaps Irish politicians simply do not realise the extent to which terrorism has poisoned their country. Travel through the South and you will almost certainly not find anybody willing to express any support for the IRA, almost nobody, indeed, who thinks they are anything other than a bunch of murderous racketeers and gangsters.

But what you will find is evidence of the poison - people reluctant to talk too loudly because the local Provo representatives might hear and note their name, and a general fatalism that Ireland is destined to live forever in the immediate proximity of its violent past. As if they didn't have enough trouble already with the frightening unreality of the Irish economy with its dubious statistics and its hopeless dependence on EU handouts that stop its farmers working and build pounds 7m marinas or spectacular swimming pools in remote western villages.

The unreality of the Irish economy is the correlative of the unreality of their handling of the killers in their midst. This is a nation that dreamt its way to a spectacular and consistent literary greatness and now may be dreaming its way towards a permanent state of terror. It was Albert Reynolds who, with depressing precision, combined the two by employing W B Yeats's The Lake Isle of Innisfree to justify the concessions of the latest peace process - 'for peace comes dropping slow'. He could have used many better quotations from many better poems - perhaps the one about an old nationalist dragging out the lonely years 'conspiring among the ignorant'.

Is this what Dublin wants, a conspiracy of the ignorant, a country in which a spurious conception of history has freed its worst inhabitants to indulge their psychotic fantasies? Maybe they think they have no choice. Maybe they think Ireland is just fine. And in a pub in County Clare at 2 o'clock in the morning, Guinnessed up to the eyballs and bawling out 'You can't hide your lying eyes' for the 15th time, it's easy for the sentimental tourist to agree. But the morning news, the hangover and the truth coalesce around one inevitable insight: it is time for Ireland to get real.