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Britain's Major Gives Ulster Talks Priority After Terrorist Attacks

By Alexander MacLeodSpecial to The Christian Science Monitor / November 22, 1993


A DRIVE to end the conflict in Northern Ireland is now John Major's top preoccupation.

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Officials at 10 Downing Street say the British prime minister has put the peace process at the top of his agenda, despite worries about the economy and his slender parliamentary majority, and is determined to make progress.

Mr. Major is working closely with Albert Reynolds, his counterpart in the Republic of Ireland, to take advantage of what they both say is the best opportunity for a breakthrough in the troubled province for 20 years.

Mr. Reynolds told reporters yesterday he detected a ``new mood from all sides'' in Northern Ireland.

The impetus for this new mood, officials in London and Dublin say, came from a series of shootings and bombings carried out in the past few weeks by terrorists claiming to act for Northern Ireland's Protestant and Catholic communities. The savagery of the campaigns appalled people of both communities.

Major was stimulated to pursue a peace process of his own when it was revealed a month ago that Gerry Adams, president of the radical Roman Catholic Sinn Fein, and John Hume, leader of the nonviolent, mostly Catholic Social Democratic and Labour Party, had been holding secret peace talks. Major objected to the Hume-Adams initiative because he thought it was one-sided and paid insufficient attention to the demands of Ulster's Protestants.

Despite the new mood, the path to a summit meeting between Major and Reynolds early next month was described by a senior British official as ``extremely rocky.'' The communities these two premiers represent - Irish nationalists and Ulster Loyalists - maintain an atmosphere of deep mistrust, the official said, and both sides are ``filling the air with threats and rhetoric.'' Threatened revolt

Major has promised to publish his own peace plan for Northern Ireland soon. But some of his own supporters in the British House of Commons are threatening to oppose the plan if it appears to put undue pressure on Ulster's Protestant majority.

British government sources say that the key to ending the violence is in showing results from its peace initiative with the Irish premier.

But peace moves appeared threatened this weekend by the leaking of an Irish government policy document that suggested that Reynolds wants Britain to accept a united Ireland as a legitimate goal.

Northern Ireland's Protestants generally oppose a united Ireland and insist that their province and its 1.5 million people should remain part of the United Kingdom.

The policy paper, drawn up by civil servants in Dublin, was denounced by Loyalist leaders in Belfast as a betrayal. The Irish prime minister claimed it did not represent official policy, and after a telephone conversation, both he and Major said their two governments were still cooperating in the pursuit of peace.

``We are on parallel tracks,'' Reynolds told reporters.

Sir Patrick Mayhew, Britain's secretary for Northern Ireland affairs, has spoken of a ``discernible yearning for peace.'' This mood appeared to be reflected in a telephone poll carried out last week by two Belfast newspapers - one Protestant, the other Catholic.