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IRA OFFER IS LATEST CHAPTER IN LONG AND BLOODY STRUGGLE

The Irish Republican Army's announcement this week of an open-ended cease-fire in Northern Ireland opened a new chapter in the bloodied history of Anglo-Irish relations.

The future offers the prospect of lasting peace wrapped in an Anglo-Irish political settlement that unites neighboring Protestant and Catholic communities torn apart by sectarian violence.Most people in Northern Ireland have grown up doubting they would ever live to see the day when peace would prevail, and the threat remains that loyalist para-militaries, opposed to any reduction in British rule, will continue the killings, triggering IRA reprisals.

The history of the Anglo-Irish religious and civil conflict dates back to the period of English King Henry II, who received a papal grant of Ireland on the condition that he establish order throughout the island. Thereafter Ireland's history became closely intertwined with that of England.

Successive English monarchs attempted to impose their authority on Ireland despite often violent opposition. The elimination of papal authority over the English church led to suspicion and hostility between the Protestant English and Irish Catholics.

Despite increasingly close integration and eventual union of the two islands in the 1800s, Irish politicians continued to struggle for separation. Famines and increasingly harsh conditions in Ireland helped spur support for independence, which came in 1921 after a failed rebellion five years earlier.

Only Northern Ireland, with its large Protestant population, remained part of the United Kingdom. The region, which comprises most of the Irish province of Ulster, had been the center of an English effort in the 1600s to settle farmers in Ireland to bolster the Protestant presence there.

Anglo-Irish animosity intensified in Northern Ireland in the closing years of the 1960s when a series of British government reforms were deemed inadequate by a growing Catholic civil-rights movement.

The past 25 years have been known simply to most people as "The Troubles," an era of violent clashes that has left 3,168 people dead.

The Troubles began when the British government deployed a battalion of troops into Northern Ireland to help exhausted Royal Ulster Constabulary officers contain mobs of rioters on the streets of Londonderry, 50 miles northwest of Belfast.

The riots sparked the revival of the Irish Republican Army, which launched a militant new campaign to end British rule in the province and to unite the whole of Ireland into one socialist republic.

British Home Secretary James Callaghan later regretted his decision to deploy the soldiers on Aug. 14, 1969.

"It's not problem sending the troops in," he said. "But it will be a hell of a job getting them out again."

Militants on both sides of the political divide then worked to exploit the sectarian divisions of the 1.5 million people living in Ulster.

The Provisional IRA grew and splintered while claiming to protect the Roman Catholic community. Loyalist groups, such as the outlawed Ulster Volunteer Force and Ulster Freedom Fighters, organized to protect Protestants and unleashed their own lethal brand of violence against Catholics.

The ensuing death and destruction has not been restricted to Northern Ireland. In the past 11 years 35 people have been killed on the British mainland and hundreds of others have been injured.

English department stores, hotels, military posts, railway stations and shopping centers have all been the target of republican bombings.

The humble and the powerful suffered in the battle of the bullet over the ballot box.

Two attacks, in 1992 and 1993, turned numerous streets in the financial district of London into a pile of rubble and broken glass and cost an estimated $1.5 billion damage each.

Another, on Oct. 12, 1984, killed five people and wounded 30 others during a Tory party conference. The bomb narrowly missed the room where Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher was staying.

Her successor, Prime Minister John Major, came under IRA fire. A mortar attack on Feb. 7, 1991, targeted No. 10 Downing St. while the prime minister was leading a meeting of his Gulf War Cabinet.

Until recent years the republicans were responsible for much of the sectarian violence that reduced areas of Ulster to a virtual battleground. However, in the past 18 months, amid charges of secret Anglo-Irish peace talks, the loyalists have begun to set the pace of the violence.

Then, at a hastily summoned news conference Dec. 15, 1993, Major and Irish Prime Minister Albert Reynolds unveiled what became known as the Downing Street Declaration, a statement of principles on the future conduct of talks on Northern Ireland.

The peace-seeking agreement offered Sinn Fein, the IRA's political wing, the chance to take part in all-party political talks on the future of Northern Ireland in exchange for an IRA renunciation of violence.

Catholic motorists traveling through Belfast's heavily-patrolled streets Wednesday waved the Irish tricolor in happiness, but only time will tell whether the two conflicting sides in Northern Ireland are ready to put away arms and settle their differences peacefully.