N. Ireland: straws in the wind

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THE temptation to despair over Northern Ireland must be resisted. It has indeed been a bloody few months. Injuries in the latest bombing by the illegal Irish Republican Army, of the home of Sir Kenneth Bloomfield, were mercifully minor, though the attack itself was a troubling ``first'' for the IRA - its first targeting of a civil servant. Still, delicate peace feelers are being extended tentatively from one group of hitherto sworn enemies to another. Straws in the wind, perhaps, but straws that weren't there before. To focus exclusively on the grim tolls of bombings and shootings is to miss the whole story.

John Hume, leader of the Social Democratic and Labour Party (SDLP), the main group of (mostly Catholic) constitutional nationalists (those seeking peaceful Irish reunification) has just concluded nine months of talks with Sinn Fein, the IRA's political wing. He sought to get Sinn Fein to renounce violence, so it might be included in eventual discussions for an alternative to direct rule from Westminster.

A diplomatic locution like ``talks were concluded'' should not fudge Mr. Hume's failure to get Sinn Fein to renounce violence. But the negotiations themselves were not insignificant. They arose out of a Christmastime peace feeler from Gerry Adams, Sinn Fein leader, whose organization suffered a serious loss of public support after the IRA's ghastly ``accidental'' bombing at Enniskillen in November. Better for Hume to have tried than not.

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Meanwhile, Charles Haughey, prime minister of the Republic of Ireland, keeps his invitation to talk with northern unionists on the table. The mostly Protestant unionists cling to ties with Britain for fear of being subsumed in a Catholic-dominated unified Ireland. They have been particularly sensitive since the signing three years ago of the Anglo-Irish accord, giving Dublin a consultative role in the governance of Northern Ireland. Seeing this as a sellout, the unionists have basically refused to have any serious negotiations with anybody about anything until that accord is abrogated.

Hence, the invitation from Mr. Haughey is for talks ``without preconditions'' and ``outside the framework of the accord,'' whatever that means. But talking is better than not talking. Chinks are appearing in the unionists' adamant. Britain's Northern Ireland Office continues discussions, albeit at a low level because of parliamentary recess, with the unionists and also the SDLP. Even the unionists and the SDLP, the two groups whose communications could do the most good, are talking, albeit informally.

No one expects the IRA to fade from the scene soon. Its 100 to 200 active members continue their campaign of terror. (And as Hume noted in an interview over the summer, the IRA has killed more Catholics in the province in the past 20 years than have the British Army, the Royal Ulster Constabulary, and the Ulster Defense Regiment combined.)

The Anglo-Irish accord may have panicked the unionists, but it also undercut the ``imperialism'' argument: It put the British on record as saying that their rule in the province would last only as long as a majority of the people there wanted it.

And so the IRA/Sinn Fein political rationale makes less sense than ever.

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