The British are making a new attempt to crack the political nut of Northern Ireland deadlock. The conference scheduled to begin in Belfast Jan. 7 is likely at best to achieve only limited success. The participants have sharply different objectives.
But the fact that three of the four main groups have agreed to talk at all is some measure of success for British Secretary of State Humphrey Atkins, who will act as chairman.
The British have presented six models of government to stimulate discussion as to how more power could be transferred to Belfast from Westminster. The major problem is to create the will among local politicians to succeed.
The Official Unionists, representing the largest section of Ulster's 1 million Protestants, have refused to take part.Instead they have sent their plans directly to British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher. The Official Unionists are demanding the return of a local assembly similar to the Stormont Assembly prorogued by the British in 1972.
The Unionists still demand majority Protestant rule and seem to have learned little from the turmoil of the past 10 years. Their leader, James Molyneaux, warned, "The aim of this conference is to devise a mechanism to shift Northern Ireland just one step outside the United Kingdom and eventually to turn it into an Irish republic."
In contrast, the ultra-loyalist Rev. Ian Paisley, leader of the Democratic Unionists, is keen that the conference should succeed. Aiming to outflank the Official Inionists and to establish himself as undisputed Protestant leader, he said: "Words are easy to concoct, but the real test is action."
It is difficult to see what concessions Mr. Paisley can make to Ulster's half million Roman Catholics without alienating some of his own supporters. The Social Democratic and Labour Party (SDLP), representing the Catholics, is determined to accept nothing less than complete power-sharing with Protestants at every level. Party leader John Hume is a tough and shrewd tactician who is certain to press for these objectives.
The Paisleyites, however, are opposed to this kind of power-sharing, and an attempt to create a solution by this means in 1974 was defeated by a prolonged loyalist strike. Much will depend this time on how far Messrs. Paisley and Hume can agree.
Both represent Northern Ireland at the European Parliament, and they are known to have worked well together at Strasbourg. Back home they are pragmatic politicians, and if they cannot produce an agreement and sell it to their followers, it is difficult to spot anyone else who could. Any possible agreement would be backed by the moderate Alliance Party, which also is taking part in the talks.
Much heat has been generated by the SDLP's insistence on an all-Ireland dimension. Mr. Paisley has hinted that there is a need for some formal relationship between Belfast and Dublin. If the all-Ireland dimension is not pressed as a step to Irish unity, it might be left quietly in the background.
The major problem is power-sharing within Northern Ireland, and this is the rock on which the conference ship could founder.
If this looks like happening, Mrs. Thatcher may be forced to intervene personally, but there is no clear indication as to what she might do. The SDLP would like the Prime Minister to show some muscle, as she did in Rhodesia, to move the delegates toward an agreement.
On the other hand the British may decide that they cannot force the Northern Irish to live together as good neighbors. In that case, they may revert to a new form of direct rule while waiting for an opportunity for breaking the link with Northern Ireland.