Belfast Brims With Hopes for Peace

All-party talks open today, the first in three-quarters of a century, to find a solution in N. Ireland.

By , Special to The Christian Science Monitor

Rising hope is beginning to supplant fear and doubt in the long-stalled Northern Ireland peace process.

There also appears to be a new determination among key politicians to make progress, lest Britain and Ireland decide to let the province's future be decided by a free vote of the Irish people.

As sworn enemies in the long struggle open full-scale negotiations with each other today in Belfast, Britain's Northern Ireland Secretary Mo Mowlam is expressing quiet optimism that progress will be made. She bases her belief on last week's landmark agreement between David Trimble's Ulster Unionist Party (UUP), the province's largest pro-British party, and Gerry Adams's Sinn Fein, the political wing of the Irish Republican Army (IRA), to set aside differences that have held up progress for the last 16 months.

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"This will be the first time in three-quarters of a century that we have been able to bring together representatives of unionist, nationalist, loyalist, and republican backgrounds," Dr. Mowlam said.

Yesterday she told a British TV program: "The talks process could be complete by Christmas if there was enough determination." Prime Minister Tony Blair, too, is urging rapid progress. "The talks will no doubt be tough, but I remain determined to reach agreement by next May," he says.

Since the IRA launched a guerrilla war in Northern Ireland in 1969, the struggle has claimed 3,200 lives.

Much of the violence has been on the British mainland, where the IRA made a speciality of bombing sensitive political and economic targets.

A framework for the talks process has been in place since June 1996, but until last week, the British and Irish governments failed to bring the main contenders together under the same roof.

Breakthrough in talks

The negotiating breakthrough came last Wednesday, when the UUP dropped its longstanding demand that IRA terrorist weapons be handed over before negotiations were under way.

Instead, Mr. Trimble accepted that the issue of arms and explosives could be discussed by a separate negotiating group while political talks went ahead.

Reflecting the new mood surrounding the peace process, Ken Maginnis, the UUP's security spokesman, acknowledged: "We have to live in the real world."

"This is an historic day," Mr. Adams said. "There is a heavy onus on all the parties to get down to the real and urgent business of making progress."

Trimble made his concession only 24 hours after he had demanded that the Sinn Fein team be expelled from the talks for refusing to subscribe to peaceful principles. Britain rejected the demand.

Referendums next spring

A major factor in ending the long deadlock, a senior British political source told the Monitor, was the stated determination of the London and Dublin governments to hold referendums next May if the political exchanges in Belfast fail to make progress.

"Public opinion polls show a deep yearning for peace in both parts of Ireland, and the politicians appear to have calculated that, in order to retain the initiative, it was necessary to compromise," he said.

The referendums would ask voters in both parts of Ireland whether they supported the peace process.

Not all politicians have been willing to heed the plea for stepped-up progress.

A voice of protest

The Rev. Ian Paisley, leader of the Democratic Unionist Party, which is smaller than the UUP and more radical, yesterday confirmed plans for a rally today to protest last week's compromise.

In a direct appeal to Mr. Paisley, Mowlam said: "Nothing is to be gained from remaining outside [the talks], but there is everything to be gained from remaining inside."

Paisley continues to insist that Sinn Fein has not given up its long-term aim to reunite Northern Ireland with the Republic of Ireland.

Some of Trimble's followers remain suspicious, too, and fear their leader may have given too much ground. William Thompson, a senior UUP member of Parliament, condemned Trimble's tactics as "bizarre" and "absolutely ridiculous."

Will of the people

Trimble, however, claims to be basing his readiness to enter full-scale talks on a British promise that no Northern Ireland settlement is possible without the consent of the province's people.

Slightly less than two-thirds of the Northern Ireland population are Protestants and in the past have supported Unionist parties.

Progress on the "principle of consent" appears to have broken the negotiating deadlock.

Garret FitzGerald, a former Irish prime minister, said both London and Dublin had made "unambiguous statements" on the need for any settlement to be based on the consent principle.

This, he said, ensured that the province's union with Britain would endure "until and unless a majority of the people of Northern Ireland decide otherwise." Paisley and other doubters note that Sinn Fein so far has failed to subscribe to the principle of consent. In the May 1 general election, Sinn Fein candidates won 16.9 percent of the vote in Northern Ireland.

At today's exchanges in Belfast's Stormont Castle, the UUP and Sinn Fein were expected to make tough opening statements of their negotiating positions.

Also present will be John Hume, Catholic leader of the nationalist Social Democratic and Labour Party, whose secret contacts with Adams nearly three years ago led to the first of the IRA's two cease-fires. Mr. Hume says the agreement to hold the first full-scale negotiations since 1922 is "a major development."

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