Hope for North Ireland

By , Jeff Silverstein is a Canadian freelance writer living in London.

IT'S still too early to say whether talks aimed at finding a political solution to Northern Ireland's problems have any chance of producing agreement. The gap between the province's political parties remains enormous. But the fact that the talks, which got under way earlier this month, have been able to take place at all is being hailed as a major political breakthrough.

It isn't just that for the first time in more than 15 years, leaders of the rival communities in Northern Ireland are sitting around the same table with the British and Irish governments. It's the new willingness to compromise that has raised hopes that a considerable measure of self-government can finally be restored to the 1.5 million people of Northern Ireland, who have been subject to direct rule from London since 1972.

Perhaps the most striking change has taken place in the Republic of Ireland itself, where the desire for a united Ireland has been lost. According to a recent opinion poll in the Republic, 80 percent said they prefer a political settlement in Northern Ireland to a united Ireland - a result unthinkable 10 years ago.

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It isn't that there's no sympathy for Catholics in the North, Brian Inglis, a founding member of the British-Irish Association, says. There is - but it is the kind felt for a distant cousin.

Beyond this wide support in Ireland for a political settlement, the Irish government has also indicated that it is prepared to compromise to accommodate as many sides as possible.

Dublin has already suggested it is willing to see changes in two articles of the country's constitution, which lay claim to Northern Ireland, if power from Westminster can be amicably transferred to Northern Ireland.

The Irish government is not the only party to the round-table talks ready to give ground.

For their part, the two (mostly Catholic) constitutional nationalist parties in Northern Ireland, which espouse Irish unity through peaceful means, have allowed the Anglo-Irish Agreement of 1985 to be temporarily suspended while the talks continue.

That agreement pleased the unity parties by giving Dublin a say in the way Northern Ireland was run. It also signaled Westminster's recognition that the Republic had a role to play in the province.

The most reluctant participants are the two unionist, or loyalist, parties - representatives of the Protestant majority who are keen to safeguard the union between Britain and Northern Ireland. Their willingness to meet representatives of the Roman Catholic community to discuss the future of the province is seen as a big step forward.

In the past few weeks, it looked as though the whole delicate process might break down over where the second phase of the talks would take place. But a breakthrough came when the unionists agreed to talks involving the Dublin government to take place in Northern Ireland rather than London.

The unionists now appear ready to find a form of power-sharing with the Catholic minority if the talks can remove the detested Anglo-Irish Agreement.

"We are prepared to explore problems common to the two parts of the island," Sammy Wilson, leader of the Democratic Unionist Party on Belfast's City Council, says. "We would like to see some form of devolution which gives the widest range of powers to Northern Ireland."

Despite this new willingness to search for a consensus, it would be wrong to assume that peace is breaking out. The Irish Republican Army (IRA) and loyalist groups have stepped up their campaigns of killings so as to derail talks.

The government's hope is to bring about some kind of stability by isolating the illegal IRA and its unionist counterparts.

The IRA's political constituency has been weakened. In the wake of the hunger strikes 10 years ago, it was able to mobilize a surge of sympathy, with its political wing, Sinn Fein, achieving just over 13 percent of the vote in Northern Ireland in 1983. That support has been steadily slipping since.

Despite the window of opportunity which exists to address the roots of the conflict, the talks remain fraught with difficulty.

Three of the 11 weeks set aside for discussion deal with procedural matters. The second phase, when both unionist parties face the Irish government for the first time in history, is already causing concern. Some reports have former US President Jimmy Carter acting as an impartial chairman to this phase of the talks concerning relations between Northern Ireland and the Republic.

By an objective yardstick, this initiative would seem hopeless. But this may be the last chance many of the leading politicians have of being involved in a search for a political settlement.

Peter Brooke, the British minister responsible for Northern Ireland, has kept reminding them that any party refusing to compromise will be blamed for the perpetuation of violence.

And in Northern Ireland itself there is the feeling that, with the Berlin Wall down, Africa moving toward multiparty elections, and Europe moving toward integration, surely the moment has come for a solution to Northern Ireland's problems.

Nobody is underestimating the troubles that lie ahead. But there's been a momentum to this process with a willingness to compromise on all sides that hasn't been evident for years.

This time, there's a real chance these talks will end in agreement.

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