Amid Northern Ireland's strife, new trends emerge. Politicians talk of seeking common ground, but others numbed by violence

People here sometimes say, only half-jokingly, that if you understand what's wrong with Northern Ireland, there's something wrong with you. But it is possible in the wake of the latest tragic outbreak of what locals call ``the troubles'' to see two trends emerging as the latest phase in the conflict. A week of interviews here with political experts, religious leaders, and local citizens reveals:

An encouraging trend, in which politicians are talking about talking to each other: a significant step in a community marked by attitudes so deeply entrenched that communication between opposing parties often is virtually nonexistent.

In Northern Ireland, most Protestants are committed to remaining part of Britain, and most Catholics are equally devoted to a united Ireland. In part because of the province's recent violence, political parties on both sides of the Northern Ireland divide are taking tentative steps in a search for a common ground.

A discouraging social trend, noted by many observers, including Roman Catholic Bishop Cahal Daly, toward an emotional withdrawal on the part of many Catholics and Protestants. Both parties often feel so weary, helpless, and fed up with the violence that they say there is no point in trying to make sense of it all.

The determination to live a ``normal'' life is nothing new in Belfast. But what worries some observers is the emotional numbing that seems to have settled in over the past 20 years of the current conflict. It's a feeling summed up by one local Protestant woman, who says, ``I've agonized over it enough. I don't want to hear about it any more. The simple fact is there's nothing the ordinary person can do about it.''

Some political observers are not dismayed by the second trend. They say that many people - especially the middle class - always have distanced themselves from the troubles, which take their toll in violence and destruction primarily in working-class neighborhoods.

Other observers, however, lament that the public's growing emotional disengagement - including a lack of interest in politics - is developing as political parties show signs of engaging with each other.

``This is definitely a new chapter'' in the conflict, says Paul Arthur, a political scientist with contacts among political secular leaders in the Protestant community.

For the first time in the history of Northern Ireland, he says, unionist political parties (those identifying themselves as British and advocating continued union with Britain) realize they can no longer count on Britain's unquestioning support.

That realization has come, says Mr. Arthur, in the wake of a 2-year-old Unionist campaign to shake the British government's commitment to the Anglo-Irish accord - a controversial agreement signed in 1985 between Britain and Ireland. The Unionists have failed in their efforts to have the accord shelved.

``The scales have come off the Unionists eyes,'' Arthur says. ``They know they can't count on the British any longer. So they are beginning to ask themselves, `What sort of relationships can we have in Northern Ireland and within the entire island [including the Republic of Ireland to the south]?'''

Peter Robinson is a hard-line Unionist and deputy leader of the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP). He and some other Unionist leaders show a willingness to talk with the Catholic nationalist party, the Social Democratic and Liberal Party (SDLP), without the normally stated precondition of dismantling the Anglo-Irish agreement.

At the same time, leaders of the SDLP have met with leaders of Sinn Fein, the legal political arm of the outlawed Irish Republican Army (IRA). The IRA wages terrorist violence in its campaign to unite the six counties of Northern Ireland with the 26 counties of the South. SDLP and Sinn Fein are reported to be in search of common ground for their mutual aspirations of a united Ireland.

According to Sinn Fein's Martin McGuinness, the various parties remain poles apart in their aims and aspirations. But political and religious leaders welcome any possibility of talks. When there is communication, they say, both sides are at least a bit more likely to slowly move from the entrenched attitudes that have made this conflict seem so intractable.

The possibility of increased sectarian violence hangs over the political backdrop. Killings by the IRA and by various illegal Protestant paramilitary groups embitter local residents.

Still, the political mood remains one of modest hope that a few steps might be taken down Northern Ireland's long road to peace.

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