The conventional wisdom - heard often in the past week - is that today's terrorist is tomorrow's statesman and yesterday's 'freedom fighter'. Look at them, says this wisdom with its elbow on the bar: Kenyatta of Kenya, Archbishop Makarios of Cyprus, Nehru in India, Nkrumah in Ghana, all imprisoned and sometimes reviled by Britain, and all ending up as respectable, even great, figures on the world stage. So why shouldn't it happen to Gerry Adams or other figures in Sinn Fein and the Provisional IRA?
Of course it might. All the names above were involved in an anti-colonial struggle, and Sinn Fein and the Provisional IRA see their activities in Northern Ireland in the same light. According to this perspective, the Anglo-Irish Treaty of 1921 left unfinished business - the liberation of all Irish soil from British rule. In Sinn Fein's view the struggle to free what Republicans call 'the Six Counties' is the sacred duty of all Irish patriots. They link themselves historically, with the independence movements of Asia and Africa.
Precedent, however, is a dangerous argument in history. Northern Ireland is not Kenya, Ghana, or India. These were colonies - a sub-empire in India's case - ruled by distant governments of a different race. Kenya alone had a settled white population of any size. India was administered entirely by British transients: troops, judges, civil servants, policemen all went home to die, and very few non-officials - businessmen, farmers - stayed behind once their careers were over.
It is hard - as Sinn Fein now openly recognises - to see the Protestant and predominantly Unionist majority of Northern Ireland's population in the same light. The time has passed - it passed some centuries ago - when they could be seen simply as migrant Scots and English planters who had driven the native peasantry off their land to give Britain a power and a presence in Catholic, unreliable Ireland. They are now no more Scottish colonists than the Afrikaaner is a Dutch colonist. They have become the British in Ireland.
There is a further and more important point. The independence movements which spread through the British empire in the first 60 years of this century often turned to violence because peaceful and democratic channels had been exhausted. The indigenous citizens of colonial Africa and Asia had no vote. Ruled by governors, on orders from London, they had no parliamentary voice. Whatever consultative councils Britain set up in its colonies, it never allowed them representation at Westminster.
Northern Ireland has political representation at Westminster, even though it is not fully integrated into the British polity. And since 1973 it has had the mechanism for a referendum, confirmed by the Anglo-Irish Agreement, which puts the future of Northern Ireland in the hands of its citizens. If the majority of its people vote for it, Northern Ireland can leave the United Kingdom and unite with the rest of Ireland.
No colony has ever enjoyed such democratic freedom to choose its destiny. Democracy - rule by and for the majority - seemed like the solution for the idealists of every anti-colonial struggle. Jomo Kenyatta preached it. But, in Ireland, democracy - this simplistic matter of majorities and minorities - has always been part of the problem.