Northern Irish Uncertainties

NOW that Northern Ireland's local elections have taken place, political leaders there, as well as their interlocutors in London and Dublin, should be gearing up for a resumption of the talks about the future of the province; but it may take a jump-start to get things moving again.

The talks, which ran from last April to November, should be viewed as remarkable for having occurred at all rather than disappointing for being inconclusive.

Still, Sir Patrick Mayhew, British secretary of state for Northern Ireland, was quite bullish the other day when he came to see us at the Monitor: "Further dialogue is essential."

The talks have involved the four "constitutional" parties; that is, the (mostly Catholic) nationalists - who identify as Irish and aspire to a unified Ireland - and the (mostly Protestant) unionists, who identify as British and want to remain part of Britain. Sinn Fein, the political wing of the illegal Irish Republican Army, has not been part of the talks.

Talks had been on hold until the May 19 local elections for 26 city and county councils. The vote was expected in some quarters to be a sort of referendum on the talks themselves, with the parties that had participated in the talks rewarded at the polls. It didn't work quite that way, however.

The elections wrought relatively little change, and unionists, now as before, control most councils; but some nonparticipating parties posted slight gains.

A British draft proposal, intended to serve as a starting point for resumed talks, has been badly received by the nationalists; but Dublin will be putting together its own counterproposal and can be expected to be working closely with the British government to get talks going. The prime ministers of the two countries are to meet later this month.

Meanwhile, moderate nationalist leader John Hume, head of the Social Democratic and Labour Party, has been talking with Gerry Adams, president of Sinn Fein.

Dublin is not thrilled with this, especially given the resumption of the IRA's bombing campaign in recent days, and unionists can be assumed to be horrified.

One interpretation reads the Hume-Adams talks, which any day now may yield some sort of result, or collapse completely, as an attempt to find out what kind of deal could be possible whereby Sinn Fein might renounce violence yet still save face and get to the negotiating table.

It is the failure to renounce violence that has, appropriately, excluded Sinn Fein from talks - and this by broad consensus, not just the British government.

But some see signs of war-weariness on the part of Sinn Fein, and some adjusting recently of the position on the IRA's armed struggle.

The intensity of the unionists' feelings about all this is not to be underestimated.

If, however, one accepts the premise that disputes get settled only when all parties feel properly represented at the table, the long view is that a comprehensive settlement must include Sinn Fein.

For the moment, though, the talks process is fragile enough without Sinn Fein. Getting the parties that were at the table back to the table may be challenge enough for Sir Patrick and his counterparts in Dublin.

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