Irish peace

A measured step forward has been taken in efforts to end the long political deadlock in Northern Ireland. It is a report by the New Ireland Forum, which consisted of representatives of three political parties of the Republic of Ireland, and the principal party of Roman Catholics in Northern Ireland, the Social Democratic and Labour Party. Groups that favor violence were excluded.

The report comes against a backdrop of reduced but continued violence in Northern Ireland: Some 2,000 persons have been killed there in the past 15 years. It comes, too, as reports - including one in this newspaper earlier this year - are noting that the basic division between Catholics and Protestants in Northern Ireland seems as deep as ever.

There is no prospect that the report's favored solution to the stalemate - unification of north and south - will be accepted by either Great Britain or the Protestant majority in Northern Ireland. This is seen as too drastic a step; and the Protestants are concerned that they would be dominated by the island majority, who are Roman Catholic. Alternatives were suggested: joint rule of Northern Ireland by Great Britain and the Republic of Ireland and a confederation of the two Irelands.

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Yet the report constitutes progress for several reasons. It notes that positive action needs to be taken so that a peaceful solution to the stalemate, rather than a violent one, may be produced. It recognizes that in any solution there should be continued association between Britain and Ulster Protestants so that they may retain what Forum advocates call their ''Britishness.'' It recognizes, too, that for any form of union to take place between the two Irelands, the Republic of Ireland must change its Constitution to remove church dominance and to guarantee religious liberties and rights to Protestants.

The report should be viewed not as the last word but as an effort to restart dialogue. Too little communication exists between Northern Ireland's two sides, despite the laudable efforts of several individuals and private groups in Northern Ireland to establish communication on a modest scale. Just as significant, politically speaking, now that it has coordinated its own position the Irish Republic next wants to involve Britain in the process.

It is Britain's turn and that of the Northern Ireland Protestants to respond with their ideas, in order to nudge the process another step toward peaceful settlement.

Britain is studying the Forum report carefully; the next move is likely to be a meeting between James Prior, British secretary of state for Northern Ireland, and the foreign minister of the Republic of Ireland. British officials privately have said they expect their country to move ''gently.''

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