A new start in Belfast

When hard-liners turn into moderating influences, they can nudge some of the knottiest problems toward eventual solution. This is the counterweight of hope against the voices of cynicism as talks on the future of tragically divided Northern Ireland get underway next week.

The Rev. Ian Paisley, known for his defiant Protestant politicking, agreed to join the British-sponsored conference while more "moderate" Protestants hung back. The new Prime Minister of the Republic of Ireland, Charles Haughey, known for his tough support of Irish unity, has indicated he would continue cooperation with Britain against terrorism -- and would be agreeable to talking with Mr. Paisley at some point.

Such politicians may have their own personal political purposes for assuming attitudes that can, of course, be changed. But any individual step toward ameliorating the violence and the conditions that breed it must be welcomed. And so must the intitiative of Britain in calling the conference. At the time of announcing it last fall, Secretary of State for Northern Ireland Humphrey Atkins hoped that overseas leaders would recognize "the determination of the British Government to make political advance in Northern Ireland."* All can contribute to a productive climate for the discussions.

At this writing the major Protestant political body, the Ulster Unionist Party, was still shortsightedly refusing to join in. It appeared to be calculating on failure of the conference and on political gain from having stood aside. But debate was reportedly going on within the party. May it lead to the better course: to pitch in and help make the talks a success -- from which political gain could also accrue, not to mention gain for the people of Northern Ireland. This appears to be the reasoning of Mr. Paisley, who may be influenced by the challenging mantle thrown upon him by his election to the European Parliament.

In addition to the Paisley Democratic Unionists, the conference is scheduled to include the Roman Catholic Social Democratic and Labor Party and the Alliance Party embracing both Catholics and Protestants. The aim is to seek agreement in Northern Ireland for proposals to be presented to the British Parliament for "restoring to the people of Northern Ireland more control over their own affairs."

Both legislative and executive powers will be discussed -- touching such matters as schools, health, roads -- with suggestions for including the Catholic minority and providing safeguards for it. Mr. Atkins says the formula must be broadly acceptable to "both sections of the community" and must involve a form of government which "both sections can identify with and spontaneously support."

A tall order. But one that would have to be worked toward with or without talks. They are a beginning that deserves full support. After all, if Ian Paisley can lend a hand. . . .

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