As the ice age of international politics known in modern history as the Cold War continues its thaw, the most resounding cracks have been heard from those regions of the deepest political rigidity: Germany, Russia, the Middle East, South Africa.
So in this climate it was not unreasonable to anticipate a loud snap from Northern Ireland, a frigid conjuncture of near-perpetual conflict, venerable animosities and lovingly cultivated hatreds.
Quite possibly it was audible last week, with the admission by the British government's Northern Ireland secretary, Sir Patrick Mayhew, that London had maintained contacts with the Irish Republican Army "for some years" -- this despite its repeated avowals it would never deal with such men of violence as these.
The campaign by Irish nationalists to expel the British from the island of Ireland is one of the oldest continuous struggles of its kind. It extends back to the failed campaigns of the 18th century by Wolfe Tone, through the Fenian and Irish Republican Brotherhood movements of the mid-1900s.
The current phase has gone past two decades and has killed about 3,000 people. Its aim is to drive the British from the last six counties of the north they still control, where the majority of Unionist Protestants (950,000) are determined to maintain the province's ties to Britain against the desire of many of the nationalist Roman Catholics (650,000) for union with the Republic of Ireland.
There are those who think this warfare will rage into and possibly through the next century.
Despite the encouraging news from Ireland and Britain recently, it is not yet certain that expectation is misplaced.
For the moment, there is talk of peace, a hint of a melting at the hard center.
The first signs of movement emerged last spring when the two principal Catholic party leaders in Northern Ireland, John Hume of the Social Democratic and Labor Party, and Gerry Adams of Sinn Fein, the above-ground political arm of the Irish Republican Army, ended their five-year estrangement. They let it be known they had a peace plan. The details were not revealed.
Then came Sir Patrick's surprising admission of the contacts with the IRA -- not just for months, but "for some years."
Despite its antiquity, the IRA may be one of the most inept national liberation movements ever assembled. Its volunteers occupy a closed world of conspiracy, violence and terror; they give it and they receive it. Their lives tend to be short. They are often undereducated rustics with a tendency to get their wires crossed, setting off bombs at the wrong time or shooting the wrong people.
But they are not all like that. Evidence of their skills at the delivery of payloads is found everywhere throughout Northern Ireland. A monument to it rises in the center of Britain's financial district, the NatWest Tower, one of London's tallest buildings. In April it was eviscerated by a gigantic IRA fertilizer bomb.
What they may lack in tactical skills they make up for in discipline and in the comfort that the long view delivers. As J. Boyer Bell, a scholar on the IRA and author of "The Secret Army," put it, they are driven by "the will to persist to await the inevitable collapse of their opponent's will, to wait and not to lose and so win."
Sir Patrick's revelations so infuriated the Protestant Unionist leader, the Rev. Ian Paisley, that he accused the government of dealing in lies, and for this he was ejected for five days from the House of Commons at Westminster.
It is hard to believe that Mr. Paisley, an astute and informed
politician despite the impression he gives of a Bible-thumping fanatic with a penchant for turning purple with rage now and then, did not know all this was going on. A lot of others did -- or suspected it.
The British government's public refusals to talk with the IRA, or even with Sinn Fein, is but one of several dubious propositions it has cultivated with regard to Northern Ireland.
Two others are Britain's assertion that the six counties of Ulster it controls are an integral, inalienable part of the United Kingdom and the frequently repeated assurances that Britain will not be separated from Ireland by force.
Still another is the blood-bath scenario.
It was Margaret Thatcher who declared that Northern Ireland is ++ as much a part of Britain as Finchley, her old constituency in north London. Yet she was the one who in 1985 signed the Anglo-Irish Accord that gave the Republic of Ireland, another country, a say in the administration of the six counties, a privilege Dublin certainly doesn't enjoy in Finchley.
And as to the second affirmation that Britain will stay the course no matter how tough it gets, one can only observe that the world is dotted with Britain's former colonies, many of which she did not leave peacefully. We all live in one.
The blood-bath scenario has been around for decades. For some it was only an excuse for British inaction on Northern Ireland. It asserts that only British arms, and the British presence in Northern Ireland, can keep nationalist Catholics and Unionist Protestants from each others' throats. To accept it today is to accept the necessity of the 11,500 British troops currently in the province staying put.
But there are those, quite responsible, who take it seriously, although not in the way it is usually scripted -- that is, Protestant paramilitaries slaughtering Catholics in the streets of Belfast, and vice versa.
John Hume, probably the most respected politician in Northern Ireland on both sides of the great religious divide, told me a couple of years ago that the blood-bath scenario should not be dismissed. But his vision of it did not feature the Protestant paramilitaries. Rather it was the legitimate, or institutional, security forces deployed in Northern Ireland he worried about, the home-grown units.
These are the Royal Ulster Constabulary with its 8,000 heavily armed constables and significant reserves, and the 5,600 full and part-time troops of the Royal Irish Regiment, formerly the Ulster Defense Regiment, a home unit within the British Army. Links have been alleged between them and the illegal paramilitaries.
These are military forces. They are constituted almost entirely of Northern Ireland Protestants, despite efforts by the British over the past few years to recruit more Catholics. They are conservative by nature and under strong Unionist influence.
Were the British to withdraw, asked Mr. Hume, "What would you put up against them? A couple hundred IRA gunmen?"
One might say those "couple hundred" have been fighting the RUC and the British Army for two decades now -- and are still there. But the response to that is that the conflict has been carried out within a constitutional arena that, although the IRA would not like to admit to it, serves their purpose. Massive internment has been rejected by the British as a tactic, and there are not repeated and widespread violations of human rights of the kind that might ensue without the protections that British life and law guarantee.
Which is not to say the British troops aren't rough, occasionally trigger-happy. They carry out repeated house searches and dawn raids on innocent families, roust civilians without legitimate motive and seemingly do everything they can to alienate the Catholic nationalist population they weresent in to protect.
They have, it is widely believed but not admitted, a shoot-on-sight policy with regard to suspected IRA agents, male or female.
Still, they and the RUC and the Royal Irish Regiment are restrained by Britain's idea of itself as a civilized nation, a nation that cares what the world thinks of it. That is no small thing.
This suggests that unilateral withdrawal, in the face of Protestant protests, could prove a disaster. If not a blood bath, it might at least open up a new and violent chapter in this long sad story. For who then would restrain the RUC? Would it, and would the Royal Irish Regiment, give their all to hold in check the increasingly violent Protestant paramilitaries?
And who would the nationalist Catholics turn to? "A of couple hundred IRA gunmen?"
All this brings forth two points, one obvious, the other not so. The obvious one is that Ireland represents an extremely complex and difficult problem. And an old one. It has plagued British prime ministers going all the way back to Gladstone, not to mention the agony it has inflicted upon the Irish people.
The second point is that Britain, in a way, is trapped in Northern Ireland. Withdrawal, without the acquiescence of all parties involved, especially the Protestant Unionists whose interests would have to be guaranteed one way or another (this is the most essential element of any agreement), could lead to something for which no civilized nation would want to be held responsible.
It is easy to advance historical comparisons to make the British nervous: the blood-soaked aftermath of its withdrawal from India, for instance, the slaughter by Hindus of Muslims and vice versa.
Northern Ireland has always been a back burner issue in British politics. So it is at least surprising to learn that Prime Minister John Major has now decided to move it forward. It is said he is working on a peace plan of his own, possibly in collaboration with Albert Reynolds, the Irish prime minister, with whom he met in Dublin on Friday.
Government-to-government agreement is necessary to any peace plan, and the operative assumption is that the Republic of Ireland may be prepared to soften its constitutional claim to the ,, six counties if Britain recognizes the validity of the Irish aspiration for unity.
But any agreement must be sealed at a lower level as well. According to Mr. Bell, "The aim of any accord must appeal to the people with the guns. The IRA is easier to deal with: They have organization, lines of authority. They would make their minds up quickly.
"The Protestant paramilitaries, they are more difficult, for the reverse of all these reasons.
"To satisfy the IRA, the British government has to withdraw from Ireland. Entirely. To satisfy the paramilitaries, Britain has to assure their interest, the protection of their way of life."
How to square such a circle? Perhaps with a measure of autonomy for the Protestants in the six counties, some form of local administration, assurances that the RUC and the Royal Irish Regiment will not be disbanded.
Considering the difficulty of this task, one wonders why Mr. Major has engaged himself. Why would he risk a split in his party -- and his own political life -- for even trying?
Perhaps he believes the time has finally come. Britain's bill to the government from Northern Ireland is running about $3 billion a year for security. The polls show most Britons do not support the continued union with Northern Ireland.
Finally, perhaps Mr. Major thinks that since the ice is breaking everywhere else in the world, why not there?
Richard O'Mara, a reporter for The Baltimore Sun, was its London correspondent from 1991 until this summer.