THE breaking of a six-week deadlock on the holding of the first round-table talks on the future of Northern Ireland in 16 years has improved the chances of achieving a settlement. That was the view of a senior British government official following yesterday's announcement that all the constitutional parties in Britain's troubled province will meet in Stormont Castle on June 17 for what officials are calling a "substantive dialogue."
Since early May, the parties - Protestant Ulster Unionists determined that Northern Ireland shall remain part of Britain and Roman Catholic nationalists who want the province to have closer ties with the Irish Republic - had been bickering endlessly, and publicly, about procedural matters.
The decision was announced by leaders of the parties after a make-or-break session of talks from which Peter Brooke, Britain's Northern Ireland secretary, was deliberately absent. His absence was unexplained.
The announcement in the grounds of Stormont was the first time for many years that leaders of the four parties - the two Unionist parties, the Social Democrat and Labour Party, and the small nonsectarian Alliance Party - agreed to stand shoulder to shoulder in front of television cameras. It was also the first time they had agreed publicly on anything in more than 20 years.
Mr. Brooke, who has worked for nearly two years to achieve a breakthrough, later indicated through his officials that he was delighted with the outcome.
The Brooke initiative involves three strands of talks:
*-The constitutional parties would meet to discuss plans for cooperating on a form of government to replace direct rule from London.
*-There would be talks between the Northern Ireland parties and the Dublin government, aimed at redefining North-South relations.
*-Direct talks would take place between Britain and the Irish Republic to redefine relations between London and Dublin.
Brooke has stated bluntly that the outlawed Irish Republican Army (IRA) and Sinn Fein, its political wing, will be excluded from the dialogue unless and until they publicly disavow violence.
In the week leading up to the Stormont announcement, the violence had continued. The IRA killed three soldiers and injured 18 other people last Saturday in an attack on an Army base. Two days later the British undercover security forces sprang an ambush on three IRA gunmen who were preparing another attack. All three died in a hail of gunfire.
Much of the argument in the last six weeks has been over the appointment of an independent chairman for the second phase of the peace process. In their joint announcement, however, the four parties expressed optimism that a chairman would be found. Brooke said: "Their confidence on this point is a very, very powerful guarantee that we will find a suitable chairman."