IT is clear by now that there will be no continuation of last year's three-strand "talks about talks" about the future of Northern Ireland before the British general election, which could come as late as July.
But officials at Westminster are feeling modestly hopeful again about the prospects for a negotiated resolution of the conflict.
The very meeting Jan. 27 at which it became clear that talks were on hold for the near term also produced a communique reaffirming the support of the main constitutional parties "for a process of talks." The party leaders also, according to the communique, "recalled the talks which took place between the parties in June and July last year and reaffirmed the view that these had produced genuine dialogue and provided a firm foundation for further substantive exchanges in due course."
This language was far more positive toward negotiations than Westminster officials had feared. They may not have a bird in hand, but they have their eye firmly on two birds in the bush.
The June and July talks were scheduled to conclude by mid-July; much of the 10-week period allotted for them was consumed with wrangling over procedural matters, including choice of venue, and so less was accomplished than had been hoped. But, as with the Middle East conference in Madrid, how much was accomplished was less remarkable than that it occurred at all.
Officials of both the London and the Dublin governments are pleased to point out that the talks concluded "without recriminations" and in a way that left the door open for talking again - as the recent communique seems to have further confirmed.
The aim of the talks has been to come to some other arrangement for the six counties of Northern Ireland, which are part of the United Kingdom. The mostly Protestant unionists, who favor retaining the link with Britain, have over the years so excluded the mostly Catholic nationalists from government that the resulting sectarian strife led Westminster to conclude that direct rule from London was the only way to keep Catholics from being completely shut out. A comparable situation in the United States woul d be for a state to be administered directly from Washington - by the Department of the Interior, for instance.
Nationalists, however, have not wanted the British connection, and don't relate, as we say in America, to London; their aspiration is for a united Ireland, through peaceful means in the overwhelming majority of cases. Unionists don't want to negotiate themselves into a united Ireland, but they have an interest in seeing local government handled at a local level.
But even if different parties would seek different things from negotiations, the process itself has potential for confidence building. As the recent communique stated, "The party leaders [i.e., nationalist and unionist] expressed the hope that by continuing to work together and by making representations together on matters of common concern they would contribute to the growth of mutual trust and confidence."
The constitutional issue - the question of what kind of political construct to have for Northern Ireland - sometimes looms so large as to seem the only issue. But these "representations ... on matters of common concern" have the potential to be the stuff of real politics, of both sides getting together to forge agreements.
Meanwhile, the violence continues. The illegal Irish Republican Army and its political wing, Sinn Fein, warn that the armed struggle can be expected to continue because the British rulers of Northern Ireland obtusely fail to appreciate the depth of the nationalists' feeling; they will fight to the last man for a united Ireland.
But advocates of the Anglo-Irish accord, signed in 1985, which gives Dublin a consultative role in the governance of Northern Ireland, were not surprised that the accord did not end the killings. Dublin's weight thrown into the balance gave constitutional nationalists an advantage over the IRA and Sinn Fein, which could therefore be expected to be all the more desperate.
A grim calculation has been made in London and Dublin to tough out the violence and stick with negotiations and whatever steps can be taken to support them.