`IT is good to hear fine words instead of foul words,'' said John Alderdice, leader of Northern Ireland's middle-of-the-road Alliance Party. ``But fine words are not positive actions.'' The ``fine words'' refer to possible talks between the leader of Northern Ireland's Official Unionists and the prime minister of the Irish Republic. Dr. Alder-dice's warning is a reminder that speculation about talks between Irish Premier Charles Haughey and Official Unionist leader James Molyneaux is unlikely to lead to an immediate breakthrough in this province's chronic political stalemate.
``I believe that real progress is some way off ... ,'' continued Dr. Alderdice, cutting straight to the heart of the recent speculation. ``The last few months have seen a measurable improvement in the political climate,'' he conceded. ``But I am rather concerned that at times there has been a tendency to overrate what has occurred and to substitute fantasy for reality.''
Undoubtedly, there has been some improvement in the political climate. Mr. Molyneaux has not ruled out the possibility of exploratory exchanges with Mr. Haughey, who has reciprocated with equal tact. Only a few months ago, Molyneaux's stance would have been regarded as treachery by unionists, who wish to maintain the province's link with Britain. Unionists traditionally have looked on the Irish Republic as an unfriendly neighbor, and on Charles Haughey as a hostile Irish republican who has repeatedly condemned Northern Ireland as a ``failed political entity.''
Tipping the scales back on a more hard-line tilt, the rumbustious Rev. Ian Paisley, head of the more conservative Democra-tic Unionists, warned that ``no unionist worth his salt would sit down at an all-Ireland constitutional conference, allowing Dublin to have any say in the future of Northern Ireland or to discuss a Northern Ireland government. It's not on today; it's not on tomorrow; it's not on forever.''
But behind these somewhat predictable smoke signals from Dr. Paisley and some other unionists, a subtle political game of chess is taking place. It centers on the outcome of the Anglo-Irish accord, which was signed almost three years ago by British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher and then Irish Prime Minister Garret FitzGerald.
The accord is a complex agreement that is bitterly opposed by unionist representatives of Northern Ireland's 1 million Protestants, most of whom believe that it represents the first step toward unification of the Irish island. In essence, the agreement gave Dublin a limited advisory role in the day-to-day affairs of Northern Ireland. In return, Dublin for the first time formally recognized the legitimacy of Northern Ireland, though the republic still claims the north as part of its territory.
The unionists have spent the past three years in an all-out attack on the accord, both politically and by rallying support on the streets. But during the early part of this year, many rank-and-file unionists generally recognized that this ``Ulster says no'' campaign had failed.
At stake now is an upcoming review of the accord's operation. The pact states that this review will take place three years after the November 1985 signing.
Some observers, such as Sydney Elliott, senior lecturer in political science at the Queen's University of Belfast, believes some window-dressing is taking place. ``The fact that a review of the operation of the agreement is coming up in November means that some unionists are trying to shape what those talks might be,'' he says. ``They are trying all sorts of tactics to get the agreement set aside, and some unionists are even willing to talk to Charles Haughey in Dublin to try ... to get him to put some pressure on the British.''
Others disagree. Fred Proctor, a leading Official Unionist on Belfast's City Council and a respected rank-and-file member of the party, believes Molyneaux is sincere. ``There is genuine movement on the part of the Official Unionist leadership,'' Mr. Proctor asserts, ``but also a determined opposition to such moves from the unionists in `middle-management.'''
Unionists know that Haughey is no great fan of the accord. As Elliott says, ``He did not help to bring it about and he does not defend it. He merely works it.''
Even so, if Haughey could get some movement from the unionist monolith, it would be a political victory. Proctor says Haugh-ey ``would like to go down in history as the man who brought about some normalization of relationship between the unionists and Dublin. And if Charlie and the right-wing in Northern Ireland could agree, who would dare disagree with them?'' Proctor sees an international parallel: ``Who would have thought that Nixon would have visited China or that Reagan would even have gone to Moscow?''
``Right wingers can get away with this sort of thing. And whatever the politicians do or fail to do, the message from the grassroots is clear. People are fed up in Northern Ireland with murder and mayhem. They want something done.''
This political game of chess is complicated by the fact that the unionists and Dublin are but two of many players at the board.
One of the key players is the mainly Catholic Social Democratic and Labour Party (SDLP), which represents a majority of the province's half-million Roman Catholics and which favors Irish unity by peaceful means. Its highly experienced leader is John Hume, whom Dr. Elliott calls ``a complex character who uses the sophisticated language of politics and diplomacy. But to understand him properly you have to take your political glossary with you. At heart he is an Irish nationalist. ...''
Significantly, the SDLP has shown little interest in meeting with the unionists to talk about a Northern Ireland assembly situated in Belfast and operating some powers devolved from London by the British. Elliott says ``if the main objective of the SDLP is devolved government for Northern Ireland within a United Kindgom context, they will need to talk to unionists. But so far they have shown no great inclination to do so.''
Currently, the SDLP is engaged in controversial exploratory talks with Sinn Fein, the political wing of the outlawed Provisional Irish Republican Army (IRA). Both groups claim that they are not compromising on their basic principles. But it is believed that the SDLP is trying to find out if Sinn Fein has an alternative political and pan-Irish nationalist strategy that would make obsolete Sinn Fein's expressed and current policy of ``an armalite rifle in one hand and the ballot-box in the other.''
The very fact that the SDLP continues to meet with Sinn Fein rules out any immediate talks between SDLP and the unionists.
Amid the stalemate, yet another player - Britain's secretary of state for Northern Ireland, Tom King - soldiers on. Many people here expected his talks with unionist leaders to break down weeks ago. But Mr. King has managed to keep them talking while he attempts to bring in the SDLP. After his latest talks with Paisley and Molyneaux, King said he would consider further how progress might be made toward round-table talks with all the province's constitutional parties.
Within the SDLP ranks there is a quiet optimism, though this is seen in an all-Ireland rather than in a Northern Ireland context. ``We are talking about the unity of people - about ways in which people can live together on this island of Ireland,'' says Brian Feeny, a lecturer at a local teachers' college who is a noted rank-and-file voice in the SDLP. ``There can be no settlement in Ireland without the unionists, but they have to find a solution which suits them. If they could get a Dublin government to produce a formula which would guarantee their future, they would [have] ... the most solid guarantee they could wish for.''
Other observers are less hopeful. Political scientist Elliott is not optimistic. Another cautious view is that of John Cushnahan, the former leader of the Alliance Party. Mr. Cushnahan left full-time politics last September because it could not provide him with a living wage; he now works as a political lobbyist.
``The current political maneu-verings are a prolonged game of passing the poisoned chalice,'' he says. ``No party wants to be seen to totally turn down any chance of progress. ... I believe that a settlement will depend on the next generation of politicians in Northern Ireland.''
But Cushnahan is not devoid of optimism. ``The hopeful thing about the agreement is ... the fact that it recognizes the value of both traditions in Ireland. There are significant changes taking place which have created a momentum, and this should not falter. There is something genuine and hopeful emerging from some of the unionists.''
Dr. Feeny is hopeful of long-term progress. ``I do not foresee a sudden lurch in any direction, because anyone who makes a quick move is liable to slip, and that could have serious consequences. The motto should be to `hasten slowly.'''
``If people look hard enough,'' says Feeny, ``they can begin to see that at least there is some oil between the political ball-bearings of our society.''
Third of three parts.