Thin ray of hope shines through clouded N. Ireland

There is quiet hope that the Belfast conference on Northern Ireland may produce results. The pot at the end of the rainbow may not contain gold, nor even signed agreements. But Britain's Northern Ireland Secretary, Humphrey Atkins, is modestly confident that "we shall emerge with firm pointers for tackling the next stage."

That may sound like diplomatic double talk. But in an arena where Northern Ireland's 1 million Protestants and half-million Roman Catholic minority have not often talked -- not to mention agreed -- the fact that the conference has survived for 28 sessions since Jan. 7 in what Mr. Atkins calls "an amicable and workmanlike atmosphere" is, he feels, promising.

Mr. Atkins, over a luncheon with American journalists, observed that one of the first unanimous decisions of the parties was that, apart from a daily press statement, the deliberations should be hidden in secrecy.

Unlike last fall's Rhodesia conference in London, the to-ings and fro-ings of debate are not being detailed to the world. So Mr. Atkins' optimism -- although not unexpected from the promoter and organizer of this latest initiative -- gleams all the more brightly through the Irish mist.While refusing to be drawn on details, he noted that there had been some agreement on "a surprising number of things" -- more, he said, than one would guess from the public statements issued by the parties.

Mr. Atkins hopes to bring the conference to a close sometime after Easter and then place before Parliament a plan for future action. That action, as he sees it, will not consider unification with the Republic of Ireland nor independence for Northern Ireland, neither of which is on the 14-point agenda.

Instead, it will try to end direct rule from Westminster. "What is wrong with direct rule in Northern Ireland is me," Mr. Atkins confesses, pointing to the anomaly of six counties on another island being ruled from London by a man who lives in Berkshire and represents Surrey. Instead, the conference aims at creating what he calls "a fair and workable locally elected administration."

The conference has been bedeviled from the outset by inter-party feuding, drawn along religiously based out politically structured lines.

The Catholics, represented mainly by the Social Democratic and Labour Party (SDLP), favor unification with the Irish Republic to the south. The Protestant majority, represented by the large Official Unionist Party and by the Rev. Ian Paisley's Democratic Unionist Party, hold unification to be anathema and will not discuss it. Instead, they preach union with Great Britain -- something traditionally abhorrent to the Catholics.

The Official Unionists, in fact, have refused to participate in the conference -- although three seats were symbolically left empty for them at the table. Only three of the four main parties (including the nonsectarian Alliance Party) are represented. Their problem is to agree on majority rule with minority rights -- a difficult task where one-man, one- vote ensures Protestant control and has in the past meant Catholic oppression.

Mr. Atkins appears confident that oppression can be relieved and order restored in the terrorist-ridden area. He points to the growing strength of the Royal Ulster Constabulary (RUC), in which Protestants and Catholics share equally the four top posts.

Gradually, he says, the "area of normality" where policemen can walk their beat without British Army backup is extending. And he praises efforts by US politicians to stem the flow of money to the Provisional wing of the illegal Irish Republican Army from Irish expatriots abroad.

But Mr. Atkins, facing a situation for which many people frankly see no solution, may need more than optimism.

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