FOR the six counties of Northern Ireland to get to the point where ``politics as usual'' were possible would be a tremendous achievement. There are in fact glimmers of hope today as there have not been for some time: hope that the troubled province can work toward some form of self-government including both ``traditions'' - the mostly Roman Catholic nationalists and the mostly Protestant unionists. For nearly two years now the province has been subject to the Anglo-Irish accord - which gives Dublin a consultative role in the governance of Northern Ireland, now ruled directly from London. During this time the loudest voice in the political dialogue has been that of the unionists bellowing, ``Ulster says no!!''
The unionists, who advocate retention of links with Britain - more out of fear of the Republic of Ireland than out of love for Britain - saw the accord as the first step in their being sold out to Dublin. Their response was to protest and boycott: refusal to meet with Westminster officials, for instance, and suspension of local government councils, to the point that London had to act to ensure provision of basic municipal services.
But recently signs of change have been in the air. Not that unionists are any less unhappy with the Anglo-Irish accord. But Westminster has given strong signals that it is not about to be pressured out of the accord. Grass-roots unionists are deciding they must learn to cope.
And so over the summer, three second-tier unionists - Harold McCusker and Frank Millar of the Official Unionists and Peter Robinson of the Democratic Unionists - put together a report urging discussions with Westminster to work out an alternative to the accord.
Their advice has been taken - in part, at least. Official Unionist leader James Molyneaux and Ian Paisley, chief of the Democratic Unionists, have been holding ``talks about talks'' with Westminster.
Many have been disappointed that the two leaders did not bring more of their own teams aboard in the discussions. The talks have been conducted virtually underground, and the leaders have kept even their own lieutenants in the dark.
And they went into the talks insisting that before they would agree to actual negotiations the accord would have to be suspended, as would operations at the Maryfield secretariat, where day-to-day activities of the accord are carried out. Many worry that the two leaders intend to use these stringent conditions as an excuse for recalcitrance, so that if the talks fail, they can go back to their constituents saying, ``We gave it our best shot, and things didn't work out.''
There has been guarded optimism about the talks. That they have taken place at all is worthy of mention. But some of that optimism has soured lately - at least in private observations. Two of the province's bright political lights - Frank Millar, an author of the task force report - and John Cushnahan, leader of the nonsectarian Alliance Party - have in the past couple of weeks decided to leave public life. Those decisions cannot have fed anyone's optimism.
If the talks do break down - as many assume they will - the question will be whether the second-tier leadership faces up to Mr. Molyneaux and Mr. Paisley to say, ``Look, you didn't go into those talks in good faith, and you didn't include us. We want real progress.''
The people of Northern Ireland, unionist and nationalist, are tired of stalemate, and the intransigence of unionist leadership cannot be allowed to block progress.