N. Ireland keeps trying to start its political engines

Northern Ireland's politicians have begun the new year with an elaborate minuet, but it is doubtful whether this courtship will end with embraces. Representatives of the province's 1 million Protestants and half-million Roman Catholics desire peace, after 16 years of a conflict that has claimed more than 2,400 lives. But both sides still seem to want peace mainly on their own terms, and this is not a recipe for a long-term solution.

The latest political overtures came from the unionists, those committed to maintaining the link with Britain. They have asked the Social Democratic and Labour Party (SDLP), which represents the Catholics, to consider taking part in the Northern Ireland Assembly. This institution was created by James Prior, former British secretary of state for Northern Ireland. He hoped to bring both sides together in a neutral assembly to encourage political agreement.

The experiment faced extreme difficulties from the start. The SDLP refused to take part and argued that Protestant unionists would not give it real power.

The unionists retorted that they could not share full power with politicians such as those from the SDLP whose ultimate aim was a united Ireland, even through peaceful means. The SDLP remained aloof, even though the unionists offered them influential posts in various joint committees of the assembly. The SDLP declined these offers and said that these proposals were the shadow of powers, but not the substance.

The SDLP also added significantly to their demands. They claimed that the only long-term solution was some form of Irish unity, with the consent of Northern unionists. The SDLP, in conjunction with the main Irish Nationalist parties in the republic, drew up a blueprint for possible unity -- the so-called New Ireland Forum. But the forum's three possible options were totally rejected by the unionists and, more significantly, by British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher. Just as significantly, they were endorsed by the Irish government and by Irish Premier Garret FitzGerald.

The gap between unionists and Irish nationalists, and between the British and Irish governments, seemed remarkably wide. Just before Christmas, the Democratic Unionists, led by the Rev. Ian Paisley, made approaches to the Official Unionist Party. Then early in the new year Mr. Paisley, James Molyneaux, leader of the Official Unionists, John Hume, leader of the SDLP, and John Cushnahan, leader of the middle-of-the-road Alliance Party agreed on a local radio program about the need for dialogue.

Earlier this week politicians from Northern Ireland's main parties together with politicians from the Irish Republic, and Christopher Patten, a Belfast-based junior minister of the British government, were attending a symposium near Washington D.C., which was organized by US academics. The talks were informal and were aimed at ``opening up avenues of communication and understanding among the participants'' and at ironing out ``ambiguities of language.''

But with so much talk about talks in the air, it was the Official Unionist leader Molyneaux who took a down-to-earth view at his weekly press conference in Belfast Jan. 7. He cautioned against the possibility of a major breakthrough as a result of the current overtures, and this echoed the caution of Mr. Hume before he left for America.

Beneath all the posturing there are hard realities to be faced by both sides. The Unionists need to realize that the assembly will crumble sooner or later, unless the SDLP takes part. The SDLP has to live with the hard fact that Northern unionists want nothing to do with the forum report and Irish unity. Though talks would seem to have little prospect of progress, even talks about talks are better than stony silence.

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