TALKS aimed at ending decades of violence in Northern Ireland are set to enter their most sensitive stage so far on Monday, following an intervention by Prime Minister John Major. A British government source said a ``fragile compromise'' had been struck, and that the collapse of the talks had been averted - ``at least for the moment.''
The formal discussions in Belfast were to bring together all the province's political parties, except Sinn Fein, the political wing of the Irish Republican Army. But as preparations went ahead, it was clear that Mr. Major and his Northern Ireland secretary, Peter Brooke, had had to battle hard to prevent a negotiating breakdown.
Earlier, Mr. Brooke had spent more than two weeks in ``talks about talks'' with the leaders of Northern Ireland's Unionist (Protestant) and republican (mainly Roman Catholic) parties. On Tuesday, Brooke issued an ultimatum to the Unionists to accept his formula for next week's formal round-table discussions, otherwise his 18-month initiative could be considered dead.
This brought a demand from the Unionists for a meeting with Major who, wading into the troubled waters of Irish politics for the first time as prime minister, persuaded Unionist leaders James Molyneaux and the Rev. Ian Paisley to accept Brooke's terms.
Afterward, a pleased but cautious Brooke said: ``I do not know that we are home and dry by any manner of means.''
Mr. Paisley said there was ``a chance of a breakthrough,'' but added that two key points had to be clarified if the talks were to move beyond Monday's meeting.
He and Molyneaux demanded to know the identity of a neutral chairman Brooke planned to nominate for later phases of the negotiations, and where in Northern Ireland future meetings were to take place.
`Flickering green light'
A Whitehall source said Major's intervention had produced ``a flickering green light'' for the Brooke initiative to continue.
Monday's meeting is intended to open a three-phase process designed to end the direct rule of Northern Ireland from London and to put an end to terrorism. The government of the Republic of Ireland will join the Northern Ireland parties in phase two. Finally, the London and Dublin governments are to hammer out a long-term agreement.
The talks nearly foundered earlier this week when Brooke proposed that an independent chairman be appointed for phase two of the talks. The nationalist parties found that acceptable, but Molyneaux and Paisley said that such a chairman might seize the initiative and produce an agreement they could not accept.
Major appears to have satisfied them on this point.
British government sources said yesterday that the Dublin government's attitude on the territorial issue was likely to be a make-or-break factor in the talks success. The Constitution of the Irish Republic makes claim to sovereignty over Northern Ireland, and the Unionists are certain to insist that Dublin drops - or at least soften - the claim.
There was lively speculation about who would be selected as independent chairman of phase two. Whitehall sources said the nominee would almost certainly be someone from outside Britain.
The name of Malcolm Fraser, the former prime minister of Australia, has been mentioned. It was also suggested by observers that somebody from the European Community might be chosen.
Paisley, asked to comment, said: ``It has been suggested that Jimmy Carter [the former US president] or someone like that might be chairman. That would be an absolute farce.''
Finding a chairman
Major and Brooke face a difficult problem in finding someone of sufficient standing outside Britain who could come to grips with the political and historical intricacies, as well as the passions, of the Northern Ireland problem.
Major's apparently successful intervention in the deadlocked discussions was described by Paisley afterward as ``very helpful.''
In his talks with the two Unionist leaders, the prime minister warned them: ``If we get into a situation where there is a political stalemate and close the door on political options, we will be opening the door to violence.''
After the meeting, Paisley said there had been ``a lot of prayer and hope'' put into the talks. But he said he and Molyneaux had been ``brutally shaken'' by the Brooke ultimatum.