Belfast — A bitter battle of words between Northern Ireland's politicians has broken out as the result of an offer by a Roman Catholic leader to talk to the army council of the illegal Irish Republican Army. The move by John Hume, leader of the mainly Catholic Social Democratic and Labor Party (SDLP), has been condemned by the Democratic Unionist Party, which represents the province's 1 million Protestants. Catholics in the province are outnumbered by Protestants by roughly two to one.
Ulster's politicians wrangle almost every day, but this row has a particular significance. At issue is the principle of whether an elected politician like Mr. Hume should talk to the IRA, which uses violence as a means of furthering its aim of achieving Irish unity. Hume says he hopes to challenge the IRA directly to give up violence.
His political opponents argue that Hume is misguided. They say the IRA has no intention of abandoning violence.
Ironically, the invitation to hold talks came from Sinn Fein, the political wing of the IRA.
Gerry Adams, the leader of Sinn Fein, which refuses to condemn IRA violence, talked with Mr. Hume last week on a radio program hosted by the BBC in Belfast. During the debate, Mr. Adams challenged Mr. Hume to agree to such talks.
Hume went further and asked to meet the IRA army council, which masterminds an ongoing campaign of violence in Northern Ireland and elsewhere. The IRA quickly accepted Hume's challenge, thus putting him on the spot.
If Hume goes ahead with the talks, he will bring to an abrupt end the uncertain overtures that Unionist leaders, including the Rev. Ian Paisley, had been making toward him.
The Unionists had been hoping to engage Hume and his party in discussions to encourage Catholic representatives to return to their seats in the Northern Ireland Assembly. The Catholics have stayed out because they want an all-Ireland solution, and because they do not trust the Unionists.
Mr. Paisley has already said that if Hume meets the IRA, the offer of talks with the Unionists will be withdrawn.
It is not only the Unionists who are taken aback. Irish Prime Minister Garret FitzGerald has praised Hume's sincerity and courage but has said bluntly that he would order police to break the talks up and arrest the IRA leaders if the talks take place in the Irish Republic.
In Belfast the British Secretary for Northern Ireland, Douglas Hurd, has expressed fears that the IRA will use the talks as a propaganda weapon against Hume and the SDLP.
It is therefore likely that if the meeting takes place in Ulster, the Northern Ireland police will attempt to arrest the IRA participants.
If Hume backs down, on the other hand, the IRA may very well try to discredit him and to claim that he is merely playing at politics.
Hume is an able and tough politician who strongly defends his offer to meet the men of violence. He says that his critics are displaying an ``immature and knee-jerk reaction.''
The row is likely to rumble on for some time, with little prospect of a formula for peace.
Meanwhile, bullets continue to speak their own language.
On Feb. 1, a part-time soldier in the Ulster Defense regiment, James Graham, was murdered by IRA terrorists as he drove children to school in a bus. He was the third brother of the Graham family to have been murdered by terrorists in the past two years.
On the political front the war of words continues, but for some people there is literally nothing left to say.