LONDON — Fresh momentum in the search for a political settlement in Northern Ireland has been generated at talks in London.
The meeting Tuesday brought together Irish government ministers and politicians from war-torn Northern Ireland for the first time in 70 years. Sir Patrick Mayhew, Britain's Northern Ireland secretary, who chaired the meeting, confirmed that the London talks had produced an agenda for detailed discussions between London and Dublin.
The next round of talks, political sources said, would center on a possible replacement for the 1985 Anglo-Irish agreement, which Ulster Protestants see as an obstacle to negotiations.
The sources noted that the London meeting highlighted a further obstacle to a political settlement: Dublin's claim, enshrined in the Irish Republic's Constitution, to sovereignty over Northern Ireland.
Britain is now expected to focus on the sovereignty claim, arguing that if Dublin agrees to modify it, Protestant suspicions will begin to recede and a way may be found to give Northern Ireland a form of devolved government. At present the province is directly ruled from London.
Tuesday's meeting was attended by Irish Justice Minister Patrick Flynn, Irish Foreign Minister David Andrews, and politicians from Northern Ireland's four constitutional parties, including the Rev. Ian Paisley of the Democratic Unionists.
John Taylor, a Unionist member of the British Parliament who shares Reverend Paisley's Protestant sympathies, said, "We have made some progress toward an agreement on an internal administration in Northern Ireland. However, Dublin's territorial claim to Northern Ireland is a crunch issue."
The London meeting, which was followed by talks in Belfast yesterday between Sir Patrick and Ulster political leaders, was the latest phase in a process of consultation started 18 months ago by Peter Brooke, the former Northern Ireland secretary.
The Brooke initiative rests on the idea that if London, Dublin, and the Ulster political parties can agree to a settlement, the Irish Republican Army will become isolated.
The Brooke process consists of three strands:
* Talks between the political parties in Northern Ireland about possible forms of devolved government.
* Discussions involving the British and Irish governments, together with Ulster politicians, under a neutral chairman.
* Talks between London and Dublin about a replacement for the Anglo-Irish agreement, which Ulster Unionists complain gives the Irish government a say in the affairs of Northern Ireland.
Professor Paul Bew, a historian at Queen's University, Belfast, said it was "not impossible" that Dublin could be persuaded to compromise. "All the opposition parties in the Irish Republic agree on the need for change in the Constitution," Professor Bew said. "If Fianna Fail [the ruling party] were to send out a signal on the constitutional question it would have a major impact."