To hell with the future, and long live the past;
May God in his mercy look down on Belfast
-- Modern Irish proverb
When Gerry Adams, the president of Sinn Fein and a leader of the Provisional IRA, visited the United States in February, he vowed to "go the extra mile" to end the violence in Northern Ireland. In fact, Adams and the IRA were not even prepared to go the first mile -- presuming that the first mile in the pursuit of peace is to stop bombing innocent people.
Adams could have used the occasion of his New York trip to announce an end to the IRA's terrorist operation. Why didn't he? Why didn't the IRA declare a cease-fire last December, when Prime Minister John Major of Britain and the Irish taoiseach, Albert Reynolds, issued their Downing Street Declaration and hopeful "peace by Christmas" talk was in the air? Instead of accepting the invitation to stop killing and begin negotiating, the IRA and Sinn Fein spent months demanding "clarifications."
The IRA could have renounced violence in May, after the British government sent it a detailed and respectful response to its questions about the proposed negotiations. It didn't. It could have done so in July, at the Sinn Fein party convention in Letterkenny. It didn't.
Not until last week did the boyos finally promise to lay down their arms. What took them so long? It isn't a nitpicking question: Since last December, when Dublin and London launched the Downing Street process that Sinn Fein is now joining after all, 57 people have died in terror attacks, 24 of them at the hands of Catholics. What purpose did those deaths serve?
Of course the cease-fire is very welcome. But does it really alter anything? A month ago Sinn Fein was adamant in its rejection of a so-called "Protestant veto" -- i.e., the principle that there can be no change in the status of Northern Ireland unless a majority of its people consent. What's different now? What has changed?
The answer, of course, is that nothing has.
The IRA's renunciation of violence may mean that they finally understand that terrorism is futile . . . or it may mean that they came under irresistible pressure from Dublin and Washington. Perhaps Gerry Adams had a road-to-Damascus epiphany and has truly converted the lads on the Army Council to the gospel of peaceful negotiation . . . or perhaps, as some loyalists speculate, the IRA was won over with secret concessions from Britain. Maybe the IRA is just too weak to keep fighting. Or maybe it is planning a double-cross.
It doesn't matter. Better jaw-jaw than war-war, Winston Churchill said, but all the jaw-jaw in the world won't solve Northern Ireland's problems. They are insoluble.
In the six Ulster counties that make up Northern Ireland, nearly a million Protestants are loyal to the British crown. They have no wish to be ruled from Dublin. They will never agree to be incorporated into a country where they would instantly become a religious minority. To the most implacable Loyalists, giving the Irish Republic any say in Northern Ireland's affairs is treachery, and they gun down people in pubs to make that point.
Ulster's 600,000 Catholics, meanwhile, still feel put upon and discriminated against. Nearly all of them resent British rule; many still dream of unification with Ireland. The most extreme nationalists regard themselves as a people under occupation. They insist on nothing less than total British withdrawal and have spent 22 years murdering people in a campaign to "wash the British out of Ireland on a wave of blood."
There is no way to bridge that gap. Britain would like to withdraw -- it has said for years, and repeats in the Downing Street Declaration, that it has "no selfish, strategic, or economic interest in Northern Ireland" -- but it cannot pull out without triggering a civil war. Meanwhile it spends a fortune propitiating the province. Northern Ireland sucks a gluttonous $6 billion annually from the rest of the United Kingdom, according to The Economist. A breathtaking 40 percent of Northern Irish residents live off a government paycheck.
And if Britain did cut Northern Ireland loose, where would it go? To the Irish Republic? Dublin may pay lip service to the all-Ireland fantasy, but it doesn't actually want those six counties. No Irish government, now or in the imaginable future, will agree to absorb the North, with its bitter, impacted tribalism, grudge-obsessed people, and ruinous costs.
History has put Northern Ireland in an impossible position. Nobody wants it, it cannot survive alone, and it has been at war with itself for nearly 400 years. W.B.Yeats wrote "Remorse for Intemperate Speech" in 1933:
Out of Ireland have we come.
Great hatred, little room
Maimed us at the start.
I carry from my mother's womb
A fanatic heart.
Ulster's "troubles" can be managed well or badly. They can be held in check by a repressive government, or set aflame by a bloody killing. They cannot be solved. Its two tribes have been at war for too many generations, and there is no magic remedy that will seal the rift between them.
Welcome Sinn Fein to the negotiating table. But expect no miracles. After 400 years of hate-thy-neighbor, the odds of peace in Northern Ireland are vanishingly slight.
(Jeff Jacoby is a columnist for The Boston Globe.)