LONDON — A NEW search for a political settlement in Northern Ireland is about to be launched amid signs that the prospects for progress are better than they have been in years.
Indications of Irish willingness to consider changes to the Constitution regarding sovereignty over the North and a groundswell of public support for peace efforts could spur genuine progress.
British Prime Minister John Major announced on an April 7 visit to Belfast that, for the first time in more than 20 years, the London government will propose new ways to break the political deadlock in Northern Ireland.
Downing Street sources said Major planned to reconvene talks in May between Northern Ireland's main constitutional parties.
An earlier round of talks involving the two Ulster Unionist parties, the mainly Roman Catholic Social Democratic and Labour Parties, plus the governments of Britain and Ireland, was suspended last November.
Until now, the initiative has been left mainly in the hands of Ulster's politicians who are at odds over the political future of their province.
At the resumed talks, Protestant and Roman Catholic politicians will be asked to agree on British-sponsored power-sharing arrangements aimed at ending direct rule of Northern Ireland from London, senior British parliamentary sources say.
Major will again invite the Dublin government to take part, and the sources say he will press it to drop - or at least soften - its demands for a united Ireland.
Dublin's sovereignty claim over Northern Ireland, which is constitutionally part of the United Kingdom, has been a key obstacle to Protestant acceptance of any loosening of the bond with London.
Dick Spring, foreign minister in Ireland's coalition government, has spoken of possible changes in two clauses of his country's Constitution that cause offense to Protestant politicians. The clauses claim sovereignty over Northern Ireland.
Last month, Mr. Spring said: "The Irish Constitution is not cast in bronze. If we are going to have new relationships on this island, we may have to look at many aspects of it. We should be prepared to change and move ahead."
Officials say Major is encouraged by Spring's comments, but he realizes that it may take some time for the foreign minister to carry hard-line Cabinet colleagues along with him in adopting new attitudes.
A key aim of devolving government to Northern Ireland would be to marginalize the Irish Republican Army (IRA) and Protestant terrorist groups by persuading people that power is best acquired through the ballot box and not by bombing and shooting.
The relaunch of the peace effort will occur against a background of continuing nationwide grief and anger over last month's IRA bombing that killed two youngsters in Warrington, England.
In a highly unusual move, Ireland's President, Mary Robinson, attended the ceremony. The Irish president said her presence in Warrington should be seen as "a symbol of solidarity" with the mourners.
President Clinton sent a personal message to the mourners. He said he hoped that "a new determination to seek peace and reconciliation through dialogue" would emerge out of the Warrington tragedy.
Major announced the imminent new peace moves on the day the memorial service was held in Warrington.
"I think there is a great feeling right across the province that people want a settlement," he said. "They want peace and an end to murder."
To coincide with the Warrington ceremony, the IRA detonated a bomb in the heart of London and mounted a mortar bomb attack on a police barracks in Northern Ireland.
The Rev. Ian Paisley, leader of the Democratic Unionist Party, accused Major of "hypocrisy" and asserted that he would not attend new talks until Dublin dropped its constitutional claim to Northern Ireland.
But a British government source commented: "Paisley said the same thing last year, but he came to the talks anyway."
Major's belief that there is a new momentum for peace is supported by research conducted by "Initiative '92," a cross-party group that last year set up an independent commission of inquiry.
Robin Wilson, a member of the commission that has so far spoken to 550 leading citizens and political groups, says there is "a clear sense of a democratic deficit in Northern Ireland.
"We have found widespread alienation from the political process and deep feelings of frustration," Mr. Wilson says.
"Our research so far suggests that there may well be a fair wind in the wider society of the province for genuine, reasonable proposals."
The political parties in Northern Ireland might find it "difficult to resist pressures from London and Dublin and from a groundswell of Ulster public opinion" for a settlement, Wilson says.