Should we keep soldiering on?: With a new Irish government in place and the US proposing a peace mission, David McKittrick examines the Government's options for Northern Ireland

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In March 1922, Protestant gunmen burst into a home in Belfast and killed every male Catholic they found there. Two weeks ago in Co Tyrone, their descendants did the same thing, leaving two men dead and another badly injured. The IRA was bombing 70 years ago and is bombing still. There is a grim continuity, as if it is forever ordained that a steady stream of people must die in disturbances which never quite erupt into open warfare.

At the moment little is moving on the political front. Last year's talks involving the UK and Dublin governments and the constitutional Northern Ireland parties failed to reach agreement, and all is in now in abeyance. But with a new Irish government in place and a new American administration professing an interest in the Irish problem, the time has perhaps come to consider whether there might be other alternatives to the current approach of military containment and political negotiation, or if patiently soldiering on is indeed the best option.

Some ideas that attracted attention in the Seventies have faded. The idea of an independent Northern Ireland once had both nationalist and loyalist advocates but now has none. Its weakness is that an independent state would be dominated by loyalists and therefore racked by republican violence, or else run on a basis of Protestant-Catholic consensus. If there was consensus, however, independence would not be needed.

Moving the border and effecting a repartition was also examined, but foundered because well over 100,000 nationalists live in Belfast. No redrawing of the frontier could include them in an enlarged Irish Republic without huge population movements.

Another option, continually urged by republicans, is for the British government to talk to the IRA through its political wing, Sinn Fein. The Government's attitude, in essence endorsed by almost all Irish and British parties, is that the IRA would first have to renounce violence, and declare and demonstrate that its campaign of violence is at an end. Common sense suggests this is not a hard and fast position. If the IRA and Sinn Fein seemed to be actively seeking a way off the hook of violence, many would stretch a point to help them. But there is no indication that they are considering ending their campaign.

The other main purpose in talking to the IRA would be to inform them that their central demand - a British declaration of intent to withdraw from Ireland - was being seriously contemplated. There is a deep-seated British instinct to have less and less to do with Northern Ireland, but enormous difficulties face any government inclined to sever the link.

Opinion polls in Britain show a large section of the public favours withdrawal, yet there is a battery of arguments against such a course. It would break the solemn promise that Northern Ireland can remain part of the UK so long as a majority of its residents wish; it would be seen as a major victory for terrorism; and it would be against the wishes not just of Unionists but also of constitutional nationalist opinion. It could also be a leap from the frying pan into a fierce fire. The conclusion of most politicians and academics who have written on the subject is that withdrawal under present circumstances could - some say would - lead to unprecedented violence.

The fear is that with no single group strong enough to provide a central authority, Northern Ireland would be plunged into disorder on the scale of the former Yugoslavia. The nightmare scenario is of Catholic areas controlled by the IRA, Protestant districts controlled by loyalist gunmen, and eruptions of something close to ethnic cleansing. The late John Whyte, Professor of Politics at University College Dublin, wrote: 'For civil war to break out, it is not necessary for a majority of inhabitants to desire it. Small numbers of extremists on each side can force a situation where, by reprisal and counter-reprisal, the peacefully inclined majority are obliged to seek protection from, and then give support to, the paramilitaries of their own community.'

The IRA argument is that, faced with a British declaration of intent to withdraw, Unionists would abandon ideas of resistance and negotiate rather than fight. Short of putting it to the test, this contention cannot actually be disproved. But many observers - including, tellingly, many nationalists who would ideally like a British departure - believe the risks involved are so huge that the gamble should not be taken.

All this has narrowed Britain's options. Currently, it affirms that Northern Ireland is part of the UK, but will cease to be so if and when a majority of its people vote to leave. This is a reasonable reflection of much British public and political opinion: it recognises the singularity of the region in British constitutional terms by conceding that unusual right of secession to it.

Within these parameters, one possibility would be a Unionist tack. This could either take the form of restoring Protestant majority rule or working towards integration with Britain. The former is generally regarded as a recipe for disaster and has long been discarded as a viable option. Moving towards integration would entail a drastic change of direction from the present Anglo-Irish approach and forfeit Dublin's goodwill. The British instinct against deeper involvement will probably prevent it.

Constitutional nationalism is currently divided in the advice it offers to the Government. One faction believes the inter-party talks were premature and should be quietly laid to rest. It advocates instead a vigorous strengthening of the Anglo-Irish agreement with more concentration on an agenda of bettering the position of Catholics in Northern Ireland.

Other nationalists believe talking is worth another try, and the Government is inclined to agree. Previous negotiations have not suceeded but have clarified many points, and the essential elements of an agreement are now clearer. It would entail power-sharing within Northern Ireland, a link with Dublin and a more explicit recognition by the Irish Republic of the constitutional status quo.

Less clear is whether the various interests involved are ready to sign up for such a deal, and whether its vital points can be successfully hammered out in detail. But the Government's policy is to pursue such an agreement.

Success would be a historic development, though it could bring its own problems. The IRA, and possibly the extreme loyalists, would take it as a challenge and try to give any new accommodation a baptism of bloodshed. Failure in the talks, on the other hand, would necessitate a reassessment. But so many of the apparent options, as we have seen, are not really options at all. At that point, the Government could decide to place more emphasis on the Anglo-Irish accord, with perhaps another attempt at talks in a couple of years. The idea that nationalists can be forced to become loyal British citizens has largely gone; so, too, has the notion of forcing unwilling Protestants into a united Ireland. What remains is the conviction that Northern Ireland will be run on a mixed model of some kind. No one believes that the present policy holds the prospect of an early solution; yet no one has offered an alternative with any greater promise of peace.

(Photograph omitted)