Think positive - optimism is sometimes allowed

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THERE is no trait, in life or even in journalism, quite so unforgivable as optimism. Just try, however timidly, to suggest that things are getting in some sense better and you will incur the wrath, contempt and pity of all right- thinking people. So one has to be timid and self-deprecating about it: but these have been a pretty good few months for the idea of progress.

Rwanda. No, wait: South Africa. Yes, but Rwanda. The IRA ceasefire. Rwanda, I said, Rwanda. The Russian withdrawal from Germany, from Riga. The West Bank. Aren't you listening? RWANDA]

It's true: political disaster strikes us more forcibly than progress. It seems somehow truer. There may be moments of hope, but they will turn to ashes, or fade into normality. Suffering and failure are, by contrast, reliably constant. Optimism has become a word that never goes out alone, but only in a pair with 'naive'.

Is this peculiarly British? It does not seem so. Think of that highly educated and admired class of American, French (and British) intellectuals who were demonstrating, throughout the Eighties, that tyranny was innately stronger than democracy, that Soviet Communism could not be defeated. Did you catch the apologies to the world from Henry Kissinger or Richard Perle? I missed them, too. Nor is the pessimism-equals-realism mentality just a decadent Western trait: the Japanese are obsessed with predictions about their decline. Nor is it confined to present-day figures: Malthus recanted about population, but no one remembers the recantation.

Perhaps a certain bent to pessimism is a natural biological corrective, twisting us towards the next problem rather than allowing us to dwell smugly on the last solution. Taken too far, though, it can become a handicap: wariness becomes fatalism. Instead of grasping the opportunity, the hand stays in the pocket.

The realists seemed pretty sure the end of apartheid could not be accomplished except via race war: the media were particularly interested in fat bearded men waving badly painted swastikas. Early days still, but that nation has been remarkably quiet. True, her new political class is proving greedy; the vast inequalities of wealth and power have barely been touched; crime is rife. But those are hardly problems unique to South Africa. Had de Klerk and Mandela been pessimistic leaders in the Kissinger-Metternich mode, this transition would not have had a chance.

Then there have been plenty of convincing articles about the bloody breakup of Russia, the refusal of the Russian army to pull out of her 'near abroad', the inevitability of another coup, the failure of Yeltsin, the looming civil wars in Ukraine and elsewhere. Some of these may yet come about, but, this autumn, the East looks just a little sunnier than expected. Even the great exception, the Bosnian conflict, has not spread as some predicted. (There was one particularly gloomy guy called Marr, I seem to remember.)

The Palestinian problem is not 'solved', and there are plenty of dangers on both sides there. But Arafat has not been ousted by hardliners, his long-dreamt-of patch of earth is partially reclaimed. Again, sceptical and over- cautious 'realists' in Washington, Israel and the Arab world could have fumbled it. There are no heavens on earth; but a few hells have been recently averted.

All of which is, of course, intended as a further reflection on the news from Northern Ireland. As with old-style Kremlinology, it seems to me to be possible to know too much about the details and complexities of Irish political history. Then one starts seeing it as a largely static and internalised pattern, missing the big truth, which is simply, Things Change.

It has been easy, these last few days, to have second thoughts about the possibilities of peace in Ireland. All those interviews with deeply bitter and sectarian people, those television discussions characterised by bile and hatred, those mutual assumptions that the other side are 'animals', bigots, monsters. But the great thing about the human monster is that we are, most of us, extraordinarily adaptable to new circumstances.

As someone brought up as a Scottish Presbyterian, I am all too aware of the sectarianism that was once so strong in Scotland. As late as the Thirties, eminent, establishment-figure church leaders in Edinburgh and Glasgow regularly warned politicians about the Catholic threat to 'civil and religious freedom' and urged immigration controls, and sometimes repatriation of Catholics. When I was a boy, big Orange marches were routine not only in the west but in Dundee, too. Now most of that has gone. Yes, there are bands and lodges across Scotland, but the sectarian passions of today are a pale reflection of a generation ago.

People changed - and, given the deep religious conflicts of Scotland, changed fast. 'Mixed' marriages are not only becoming routine: Church of Scotland ministers are prepared to conduct them. The Scottish Tory leadership boasts Catholics and Jews. Most Scots regard the Ulster conflict as something alien, not something with parallels at home. Scottish Presbyterians visiting Ulster sometimes say they find Protestant attitudes there 30 years out of date.

My point is simply that if it can happen in centres of traditional sectarianism such as Glasgow (and Liverpool), it can happen, one day, in Belfast. To assume that people cannot slough off old attitudes is as serious, and sometimes as dangerous, a fallacy as to assume history doesn't matter. It matters, a bit. The modern history of oppression in Ireland has been bad but is as nothing compared with the suffering and bigotry in, say, South Africa or Beirut. So if it is safe and 'sensible' to be pessimistic about the IRA ceasefire, it is also a human failure to be only pessimistic.

There is no 'end of history' thesis buried in all this: alongside cheering developments there are charnel houses and familiar horrors. But Rwanda doesn't refute Palestine: Bosnia doesn't cancel out the peaceful separation of Czechs and Slovaks or the Russians marching out of the Baltic states. Perhaps the new problems facing the world will be as grave as the old ones - demography and environmental degradation are as ferocious in their implications as nuclear-tipped ideological confrontation. There will be plenty of employment for genial doomsters there, too; indeed, a veritable industry of despair is at work already. But these have been an unsettling few weeks for pessimists and for that we can raise a modest glass this weekend. Just sometimes it is worth pointing out that progress is also a fact.