In Belfast, Talk Is Action

IN Northern Ireland, the action has turned to talk, talk, and more talk - and never has cacophony sounded so sweet.

Sinn Fein leader Gerry Adams has had a historic meeting with Irish Prime Minister Albert Reynolds. Irish Foreign Minister Dick Spring, fresh from consulting with President Clinton, met with his British counterparts and was scheduled to meet with Britain's Northern Ireland Secretary, Sir Patrick Mayhew. Hard-line Protestants of the Democratic Unionist Party were to meet with British Prime Minister John Major in London. And Mr. Adams is likely to go to the United States soon to talk with Irish nationalist supporters.

Radical Protestant paramilitaries have tried to drown out the words with tragic violence, notably a heinous murder of an innocent Roman Catholic man and the bombing of Sinn Fein headquarters. But the IRA, whose renunciation of violence Aug. 31 ignited the flurry of diplomatic activity, seems resolved to withstand the obvious baiting and not respond in kind.

Clearly now is the time for voices of moderation on both islands and in the US to vigorously pursue this opening toward peace. Cynicism among Northern Ireland's war-weary is understandable, but unacceptable. The IRA move has tipped the scales from stalemate and despair toward peace and hope. People of good will now must act to make the momentum unstoppable.

Pitfalls abound. Moderates on all sides play a delicate game, seeking paths forward without losing contact and influence with hard-line elements. Unionists fear that the British have sold out secretly to the IRA, despite clear language in the Downing Street Declaration that protects self-determination. Adams's reluctance to use the word ``permanent'' to describe the cease-fire seems likely a concession to IRA extremists.

The Irish government has accepted the cease-fire language as sufficient to allow Sinn Fein a place at future talks. Britain is asking for stronger assurances. This divergence of views must not be allowed to widen or disrupt London-Dublin solidarity, the bedrock upon which any peace will be built.

In the end, the IRA's ability to keep its cease-fire in the coming crucial months will hold more meaning than subtleties of wording today. By crossing to the side of peace, the IRA has advanced the cause of Northern Ireland's Catholics in a way that violence could never achieve.

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