WHATEVER the current talks on the future of Northern Ireland achieve, that they are happening at all is remarkable. This is a part of the world that has given the phrase "incremental progress" new depth of meaning. Even if the negotiations go down in flames, that the unionists - those (mostly Protestants) who want to keep Northern Ireland within the United Kingdom - have even agreed to take part makes this one of a handful of turning points in the history of the province over the past quarter century.
The talks involve the four constitutional political parties of Northern Ireland, and the British and Irish governments. They concern the "totality of relationships" between unionists and (mostly Catholic) nationalists in Northern Ireland; between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland, to the south; and between Britain and Ireland.
The majority unionists' unwillingness to give nationalists, who want a united Ireland, a fair share of housing, education, public-service jobs, and so on led to the imposition of direct British rule on the province in the early 1970s.
Clearly it should be desirable to both communities to have a greater measure of local government.
The current discussions are largely the fruit of efforts by the British secretary of state for Northern Ireland, Peter Brooke, who some 15 months ago, soon after coming into office, started quietly making the rounds to see whether there would be any interest in negotiations.
There is something almost disconcerting about the way he has succeeded. Over the past few years, several signs have appeared along the way to suggest readiness for some sort of talks. And then, like blighted buds, they would come to nothing. Northern Ireland lost several promising young political leaders who, having no real forum in which to practice politics in the absence of meaningful local government, either moved to the Irish Republic or left politics altogether.
It is only in the last several weeks that the talks now under way became a real possibility. In the "multi-strand" discussions, it is agreed that everything will be on the table, including the Republic's constitutional claim to Northern Ireland, and that everyone will be able to say what he wants without having his interlocutors bolt from the table.
Mr. Brooke told a group of Monitor editors the other day, "The process will operate only if everyone is in agreement. Everyone has the right to veto - and that's been a strength, oddly. No one is eager to exercise the veto. And no one is having to make up one's mind except on a total package," which is expected to be put to some sort of island-wide referendum.
What should we hope for in Northern Ireland? The several parties to the dispute have their various aspirations. For outsiders who care about this troubled part of the world, the desire should be to see a political construct in which all parties can and do have confidence.
That might be a peacefully unified Ireland. That might be an independent Northern Ireland. That might be some sort of Anglo-Irish condominium for the six counties of the North. (The Anglo-Irish accord already gives Dublin a consultative role in the affairs of Northern Ireland. Unionists have been bitterly opposed to this, and as a gesture in their direction, the current talks are being held during the hiatus between sessions of the intergovernmental conference set up under the accord. That gives the tal ks a deadline of July 16.)
Or a kinder, gentler version of the constitutional status quo, with both communities enjoying fuller economic and political opportunities than is now the case, may be what is worked out. After all, the coming economic integration of the European Community (the "1992 process") may make the whole question of the border largely moot.
Catholics are a minority, but a large one in Northern Ireland - roughly 600,000 as compared with 900,000 Protestants. Conversely, Protestants are a minority on the island as a whole, but too large a minority to be treated as an asterisk. No sensible person can want a forcible unification. Whatever change in constitutional arrangements is made - if any - must be by very broad consensus, not merely a technical majority.