At odds over Ulster's odd couple

THE most surprising moves are now being made to try to break Northern Ireland's cycle of violence and counter-violence. The latest surprise came in the form of a meeting between John Hume and Gerry Adams.

Mr. Hume is the political leader of Northern Ireland's half-million Roman Catholics. Mr. Adams is the head of Sinn Fein, the political wing of the outlawed provisional Irish Republican Army (IRA).

Future meetings are likely to follow on the initial contact between the two men last month.

Hume's move met with strong criticism from political representatives of Ulster's 1 million Protestants and from leader-writers in influential journals such as the Times (London). But the meeting received the backing of Hume's own Social Democratic and Labour Party (SDLP), following a briefing to his key constituency supporters Jan. 23.

Hume advised his followers to be cautious about speculation on a possible IRA cease-fire following his Jan. 11 meeting with Adams. But the meeting between the two leaders may point to a possible shift in the IRA's declared strategy of gaining Irish independence ``with the ballot box in one hand and the Armalite rifle in the other.''

Both men made their positions clear after their first encounter. Hume said he had been approached by a ``third party,'' whom he respected, and who believed that it would be ``very productive'' if he were to meet with Adams. Hume said that the talks had been aimed at bringing violence to an end and that he had made this ``very clear'' to the Sinn Fein president. Adams said no ``military agenda'' had been involved and that the dialogue had been ``to examine ways in which conditions for peace could be established.''

It's not clear just why Hume - a respected Irish nationalist politician who is acknowledged to be one of the most able of his generation - took the step of meeting Sinn Fein and thus risked alienating further the leaders of Ulster Protestants at a time when there were hopes of both sides in Northern Ireland trying yet again to find some common ground, however tenuous.

The SDLP and Sinn Fein have only one objective in common. They both want a united Ireland. But they are totally opposed on methodology. Hume has repeatedly made clear his party's total repudiation of violence. The SDLP wants a peaceful transition, while Sinn Fein steadfastly refuses to disown the violence of the IRA. There is speculation that the Enniskillen bombing, an IRA attack that claimed 11 lives in November, sent shock waves through the militant Irish Republican movement. But since then the IRA has maintained its terror campaign, with more bombings and the murder of security personnel and one of its own alledged ``informers.''

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