WITH spring comes the most hopeful news from Northern Ireland in a long while. Last week the major political parties in the tragic province agreed to sit down this month or next for talks on political reconciliation and enhanced home rule. These will be the first negotiations in about 15 years among representatives of the largely Protestant unionists, who wish to remain linked to Britain, and the predominantly Catholic republicans, who favor closer ties with (or full incorporation into) the Republic of Ireland.
Peter Brooke, Britain's secretary of state for Northern Ireland, deserves high praise for his 14 months of long-shot diplomacy to bring the sectarian adversaries together.
Under the complicated formula Mr. Brooke devised, three sets of talks will proceed in due course - internal discussions between the parties in Northern Ireland, talks between Northern Ireland and the Irish Republic, and talks between the Irish Republic and Britain.
Of course, hard as Brooke worked to achieve this breakthrough, he has only - in the American term - reached first base. The procedural questions the British minister finessed pale in difficulty beside the substantive issues dividing the majority Protestants and minority Catholics of Northern Ireland. The hopes his achievement engenders must be tempered by realism and history. Just days after Brooke's announcement, three young Catholics were murdered by members of a Protestant paramilitary group, and the Irish Republican Army continues its violent work.
Yet the killers are a minority, and are becoming more isolated. Most people in Northern Ireland are weary of bloodshed; that's why their political leaders agreed to talks that some of those leaders privately don't welcome.
Politics is only part of the answer in Northern Ireland. Britain must vigorously continue its efforts to expand jobs in the province and to broaden economic as well as civil rights for Catholics.