First Belfast had to be visited again, not to see but to listen.

Then, across the border invisible but for surveillance towers, to the Republic of Ireland - south to Dublin and the city and county of Cork, westward through the mists of Kerry and then east and north across the country toward Dublin again - all the while listening, listening, to friends and their friends, experiencing a special happiness I never thought I would taste in my lifetime of journalism.For the first time in any country where the people had been slaughtering each other for generations, I was certain that real peace was close enough to feel and very likely was already here. Although the war of the Irish is not formally over, a new government is already in the making in the North.

My happiness was for the Irish and what they were doing for themselves. And it was for their openhearted embraces to America for what President Clinton and his emissaries had been doing to help bring together the Roman Catholics of the North who wanted Irish partition ended and Protestants who see the North and themselves as part of Britain.

The agreement worked out on Good Friday presents no final settlements - the weakness of Oslo. But with real concessions from both sides, it knits North and South closer. It gives the large Catholic minority in the North a real share of political power.

In a workingmen's club in Belfast I met David Ervine, a leader of a Protestant political party and its paramilitary unit - the local euphemism for terrorists - a small version of Sinn Fein's Irish Republican Army.

Once when he was young, police caught him running from a truck. He cried out that a bomb was aboard. They tied him to a long rope and ordered him to defuse the bomb. Then they tied him to almost six years in jail.

As time passed, he decided that unless Protestants and Catholics shared political power they would all be prisoners, all targets. The day after we met, he announced that his "paramilitaries" considered the war to be over, not someday but now.

The happiness of everybody in Ireland faded at 3:10 p.m. last Saturday. Staying with friends in the county of Tipperary, we heard the news - a bomb had exploded in the village of Omagh in Northern Ireland.

Two days later a gang of terrorists calling themselves the Real IRA said they had done the deed. They whined that they had really not meant to hurt anybody, which made Ireland sick with fury.

But it also created something else Ireland had not known. Protestant politicians came to the funerals with Catholic fellow members of the new Northern legislature.

The prince of Wales walked and talked without fuss or ceremony among the broken-hearted and left behind a small simple bouquet - the best moments of the House of Windsor in a long time, said all.

Everybody can say and many do, often, that terrorists are now at war not with Catholics or Protestants but with the nation of Ireland. They say that is a war the killers cannot win and pray that God will hear the Irish nation.

New York Times News Service