ON the fifth anniversary of the signing of the Anglo-Irish agreement, the tortuous search for a political settlement in Northern Ireland continues. The agreement - signed by the British and Irish governments to increase cross-border cooperation and orchestrate a more concerted effort against terrorism - has been controversial from the start.
The accord gave the Dublin government a limited advisory role in Northern Ireland's affairs, in return for Dublin's recognition of the ``legitimacy'' of the Northern Ireland state.
But it has been bitterly opposed by the Protestant Unionists, who want the province to remain part of Britain and looked on the agreement as the first step toward Irish unity.
Earlier this year, it seemed that Peter Brooke, the British government's secretary of state for Northern Ireland, was about to achieve the near-impossible by beginning separate round-table talks with political representatives of the province's 1 million Protestants and roughly half-million Roman Catholics.
Most Protestants favor retaining the link with Britain, which has ruled Northern Ireland as a province since 1972. The Catholics generally favor uniting with Ireland by peaceful means.
Mr. Brooke apparently won the trust of the major parties in separate talks, and he appeared to maneuver each into a position where it could not be seen in public to be the main stumbling block to progress.
The talks were to proceed along three lines: to establish a dialogue between the government and Protestant and Catholic communities in Northern Ireland; to improve relations between Belfast and Dublin; and to develop closer ties between Dublin and London.
But despite Brooke's diplomacy, no workable formula has yet been found. The main obstacle, all parties acknowledge, has been the issue of the degree and timing of Dublin's involvement.
``A number of issues have to be resolved, and there is recognition that one of the issues is not if but when the Dublin government should be involved in the process,'' says Brian Mawhinney, the British junior minister responsible for political development. Dr. Mawhinney has worked closely with Brooke.
Although none of the parties has firmly closed the door, there is still a danger that the process will unravel unless Brooke can make a breakthrough.
At a recent meeting of the British and Irish governments in London, the mood was somber. Brooke said that he would resume his talks with Northern politicians within the next few weeks.
``We are all realists,'' Brooke said. ``If we come to the conclusion that we can't bridge that particular gap, then we would be better to pause and take stock, and then move forward at a later stage.''
Gerard Collins, the Irish foreign minister, was no more optimistic. ``There is no breakdown, but there is no breakthrough. There are certain difficulties to be overcome, and it is not going to help if we point the finger at anyone. If the talks are to be a success, we want all those who should be involved to be involved.''
Meanwhile, the main parties in Northern Ireland are speaking different languages.
``We are prepared to talk to the Unionists at any time and in any place without preconditions. We feel that we have met all their preconditions up to now, but they keep putting forward more,'' says John Hume, leader of the mainly Catholic Social Democratic and Labour Party (SDLP).
James Molyneaux, leader of the Official Unionists, said: ``We have not closed the door on talks, but the way forward is not going to be easy.... As far as we were concerned there was substantial agreement up to early July of this year, but at that stage it became impossible to meet the further demands of the Dublin government and the SDLP.
``The Unionists want to work out means of governing Northern Ireland within the United Kingdom, but the SDLP and Dublin seem to want ... to start talks on the assumption that Northern Ireland will no longer be in the United Kingdom,'' he added.
The election last week of Senator Mary Robinson as president of Ireland, he said, was a more hopeful sign of changing attitudes. Mrs. Robinson said she would be eager to extend ``the hand of friendship'' to the North.
On Nov. 10, Brooke repeated an earlier message to Sinn Fein, the political wing of the outlawed Irish Republican Army (IRA), that it could take part in talks on the future of Northern Ireland if it renounced violence. Irish Republicanism, he insisted, would have to renounce violence before it would be able, like other parties, ``to seek a role in the peaceful, political life of the community.''
Sinn Fein rejected the call. Mitchell McLaughlin, its Northern Ireland chairman, said: ``Britain must accept that the lessons of history teach us that Britain's role in Ireland inhibits the development of dialogue and negotiation, and creates the conditions for conflict.''
While the politicians cannot find agreement, the violence continues from the outlawed Irish Republican Army and their mirror-images, the Loyalist paramilitaries.
October was a particularly bloody month, with 19 people killed in 20 days.
``The only realistic future for Northern Ireland is for people to sit around a table and talk, and if there is to be agreement in general, people will have to end up feeling comfortable with such an agreement. At this point the government has ruled nothing out. If there has to be a pause in the talks, we will decide what action to take, in the circumstances,'' said Mawhinney.