'I DON'T really follow Northern Ireland politics," said an English friend on Friday, "and I know it's often surreal, but this week it's really outdone itself. I mean one minute I'm looking at the news and there's that chap whatshisname, the Irish prime minister, beaming about how it's a great historic day or something, and an hour later it's all collapsed." She chuckled.
"But the bit I really can't get my head around is this nice Canadian general explaining that he can't tell anyone what arms the IRA have put out of action because it's a secret." Upon which she - a publisher of crime fiction who deals with the improbable and even impossible - dissolved into incredulous giggles.
Well, I've been indulging in some pretty hysterical laughter myself.
On Tuesday, I was in Las Vegas and I left it as CNN was making encouraging noises about Ireland and landed in London on Wednesday morning to find messages from three BBC news programmes asking me if I'd explain what had happened.
Having consulted my Pakistani taxi driver and been told that everything had gone wrong in Ireland, I told the BBC I hadn't a clue. Since then I've read what seem like hundreds of contradictory articles (it's Blair's fault; it's Bertie's fault; it's the DFA's fault; it's Trimble's fault; it's Sinn Fein/IRA's fault; it's de Chastelain's fault; it's all because the SDLP/PUP/Women's Coalition weren't in the negotiations; the IRA's decommissioned 70 per cent; they've decommissioned one per cent; the Agreement's dead; a new deal will be done this weekend; and so on and so on), have listened to innumerable interviews with fed-up politicians and have consulted many extremely well-informed people all of whom responded with variations on "Christ-I-don't-know-what-do-you-think?"
The explanation that most amused me came from Martin Mansergh in the Irish Times: "Not for the first time in political negotiations, the Ulster Unionists developed cold feet at the last minute, even in response to what is likely to have been a very substantial IRA gesture." "Likely?" If even Senator Mansergh thinks it's only 'likely' that the IRA has made a big 'gesture', how in hell does he expect Ulster Prods - the most literal-minded people on earth - to smile indulgently and say, "We were expecting a huge and transparent act of decommissioning, but, hey, between friends that's only a detail"?
For what it's worth, I think everything fell apart mainly because the governments were so excited that they forgot to find out from de Chastelain what he thought he would be doing and saying, thus leaving us with the bizarre situation of the Taoiseach vainly trying to make contact with a man who'd been ordered by paramilitaries to leave his mobile phone at home.
Running through my head periodically throughout the last few days was a song by the American satirist Tom Lehrer, one of the great inspirations of my life for his hilarious war on cant. One verse in his mockery of National Brotherhood Week (National Everyone-Smile-At-One-Another-hood Week) ran:
Oh, the Protestants hate the Catholics
And the Catholics hate the
And the Moslems hate the
And everybody hates the Jews.
Lehrer had a great feeling for some eternal verities.
In the case of Northern Ireland, there's plenty of hatred to go round and in the case of the peace process, there are other eternal verities we should have learned over the past decade.
Here are just a few that have surfaced again uncomfortably: ambiguity may provide a short-term solution but stores up problems in the long term; the two tribes on this island don't trust each other; pandering to extremes destroys the centre ground; the republican leadership is as slippery as it is shameless; the IRA are anal retentives to whom arms are comfort blankets; allow Sinn Fein centre-stage and they'll squat there; and getting it right is more important than organising photo-ops for prime ministers.
Eoghan Harris pointed out years ago what has become another verity: republicans lost the war but think they won, while unionists won but think they lost.
What we're looking at now is a variation on this. The SDLP won the argument within nationalism, but the nationalist electorate think republicans did. Through years of dogged negotiation the Ulster Unionist Party forced Sinn Fein/IRA to concede the principle of consent and give up killing for a United Ireland, yet most unionists haven't the wit to see this as a triumph. In their arrogance and stupidity, republicans think they've been really clever to gain an election without having transparent decommissioning: the result is likely to be that they make a deal with pro-Agreement unionism impossible.
So is this what it's all been about, Gerry and Martin? Are you happy that you and the lads have been so Machiavellian that you've just ensured that direct rule is back to stay?