It was, the columnists declared, a return to normality for a population grown tired of walking behind an unending stream of coffins. The Irish Republican Army had called a ceasefire, the loyalist paramilitaries had reciprocated and peace was not only at hand, it was here.
Fifteen months on, even the idealists among us now separate the ending of the conflict from peace. And it is only for our parents' generation--these in their late 40s who remember a society, however discriminatory, free of what we euphemistically call "the troubles," that the ceasefires represent a return to normality. For those of us born since 1969, normality is violence.
The twentysomething generation in Northern Ireland is slowly adapting to things our American contemporaries might consider mundane: going to the movies or to a bar or on a date without keeping one eye on the door, wondering if the next person who enters is going to strike a blow for the Crown or Ireland. Our parents put their lives on hold when the violence began; our lives became hostage to theirs.
In America, each generation is expected to do better than the preceding one; in Ireland, we seem condemned to inherit only the unfinished business of our ancestors. The majority of us have managed to get by, through luck or conscience, just as many of our peers were socialized into violent participation. We were all born into a war zone; most of us would prefer not to grow old in one.
The euphoric reception given President Clinton in Belfast and Derry was as much desperation as gratitude: an entire community looking to the man from Hope. He shares little of our background and none of our politics. We crafted our definitions of peace onto his neutral-speak, and for a couple of days he was all things to all men. His presence was seen as an affirmation that peace was not dying.
Traditionally, American pressure has been funneled through the Irish government, and Sinn Fein had hoped that Clinton, prodded by Dublin, would encourage Britain to place less import on the decommissioning of IRA weapons prior to all-party talks. The IRA was not defeated, and the surrender of weapons before a final settlement, even if not intended for future use, is unpalatable to many Republicans.
But with the right wing of the Conservative party in the ascendency and the very future of his government dangling on the whim of nine unionist votes in Westminster, concessions by John Major are unlikely. Irish Prime Minister John Bruton has also edged away from nationalist positions, and the American involvement in Bosnia places greater importance on the relationship with Britain.
So our hopes for peace would then appear to rest on the hitherto unseen benevolence of unionist leaders and a sudden willingness on their part to concede "equal access to daylight for nationalists," in the words of civil-rights activist Bernadette Devlin McAliskey.
Our parents were asking for the same in 1968. We have seen the past, and we are it.
Like the Viet Cong, the IRA relied heavily on the acquiescence of many within their community, whether through faith, friendship or fear. Realizing those people have now been exposed to a life free of terror, the British government perhaps feels the IRA's base of support may have evaporated, and with it the need for accommodation.
They may have guessed correctly. I don't know anyone who has enjoyed the past quarter-century or who wants to relive it. The nationist community in Northern Ireland is tired. But returning to the back of the bus they vacated for the civil-rights marches 25 years ago is an option few will seriously consider.
If we are left standing amid the debris of a failed political process, then a younger, more militant leadership will emerge within the Republican camp. The current leadership of Gerry Adams and Martin McGuinness itself came to power on the back of a failed ceasefire in 1975, and there is an unspoken assumption that if this peace process fails, their regime will also be forced to give way. The guns, like family heirlooms, will be passed down.
And for the first time, those who pick them up will be those who have known nothing but violence; they would almost certainly be less inclined toward political participation. Put simply, Gerry Adams is the last Republican leader the British government is going to have the opportunity to reach a settlement with in this century.