THE all-party talks on the political future in Northern Ireland, which are scheduled to start in Belfast today, are seen here as the best hope for some time of breaking the deadlock that has prevailed in this troubled British province for more than two decades. The main participants are approaching the conference table with caution and, uncharacteristically, they have agreed to say little publicly in advance. But the fact that talks are taking place at all is a tribute to the perseverance of Peter Brooke, the British secretary of state for Northern Ireland.
For almost 18 months, Mr. Brooke talked privately and separately with the political leaders of Northern Ireland's 1 million Protestants, who favor retaining the link with Britain, and the representatives of the province's half million Roman Catholics, who favor Irish unity by peaceful means.
Brooke also has been able to persuade the Northern Ireland politicians - notably the Unionists, representing the Protestants - that the Dublin government should have a role in the talks, at an appropriate time. The Unionists remain adamantly opposed to any erosion of ties with Britain.
THE Social Democratic and Labour Party (SDLP), which represents Catholics and is dedicated to Irish unity by peaceful means, is not going to surrender easily its objective of all-Ireland unity.
The Irish government is a signatory of the existing Anglo-Irish Accord, from which Unionists feel themselves to have been excluded, and it is not likely to allow the accord to be scrapped. Dublin has argued that, despite Unionist misgivings, the agreement offers the best hope of progress.
But Brooke underlined that both the British and Irish governments would be prepared ``to consider a new and more broadly based agreement or structure if such an arrangement can be arrived at through direct discussion and negotiation between all of the parties concerned.''
One leading Unionist participant has more than once warned of the dangers of a ``high-wire'' media act that would increase public pressure on politicians. Privately, he expresses cautious hopes of some progress and the possibility of a ``fairer agreement'' that would take more cognizance of Unionist concerns.
Informed sources within the SDLP camp talk about the new possibilities afforded by talks which, for the first time, include politicians from Northern Ireland, London, and Dublin. But even so, an SDLP leader admits privately that he is more hopeful than optimistic about the longterm results.
Meanwhile, there are concerns here that the outlawed Provisional Irish Republican Army, whose political wing Sinn Fein has been excluded from the talks, will step up its campaign of violence, if only because successful discussions between the constitutional parties will render them more and more irrelevent.
Already the Ulster Freedom Fighters and the Ulster Volunteer Force (UVF), two outlawed paramilitary Loyalist groups, have announced a cessation of violence while the talks begin, though they said they reserve the right to judge the progress of the talks and revert to violence. However, the UVF claimed responsibility for the murder of a young Catholic taxi driver in Belfast just after making the announcement.
``We are looking to the politicians to get down to serious talking, and we're hoping for results,'' says Bill McCourt, chairman of the Northern Ireland region of the Confederation of British Industry, an employers' association.
He said that his group was ``horrified'' at the massive job losses in Northern Ireland over the past two weeks. GEC Alsthom, a manufacturer of heavy power plant machinery, announced they were shutting down, with a loss of 500 jobs. Other firms announced layoffs totaling 400.
``It will be a major task to replace 900 jobs in a region of high unemployment,'' he says. ``A successful outcome to the talks might pave the way to peace and would remove one obstacle to attracting more investment.''
The Rev. John Morrow, leader of the Corrymeela Community, an ecumenical peace group which has been working in Northern Ireland for 25 years, adds, ``Whatever happens in the talks, the work of peace and of bridge building must go on. Significantly, the long period of preparation for the talks has in itself been valuable in improving the climate for the kind of work we are trying to do. I count that as a plus, whatever happens.''