NORTHERN Ireland's worst week of violence for more than a decade has catapulted the British and Irish prime ministers into a new search for peace in the province.
But the joint pledge of John Major and Albert Reynolds on Oct. 29 to relaunch talks involving Northern Ireland's constitutional parties, and the London and Dublin governments, was greeted with skepticism by leaders of the province's nationalist (Roman Catholic) community, and with resistance by leading loyalist (Protestant) politicians.
Mr. Major and Mr. Reynolds say the need to end the tit-for-tat terrorism that killed 24 people in the seven days up to Oct. 31 is imperative.
The constitutional parties, however, remain profoundly suspicious of each other, and extremist paramilitary groups on both sides of the religious divide appear to be locked into an endless cycle of revenge. The latest killings were sparked by a bomb attack by the Irish Republican Army (IRA) in a Protestant area of Belfast on Oct. 23. The attack killed 10 people.
Major's advisers say the spiraling violence has nourished concerns that the crisis in Northern Ireland will get completely out of control unless a credible peace initiative gets under way.
Some of the latest incidents have appeared mindless and bizarre. The IRA man who planted the Belfast bomb was killed by his own device. Last Saturday's Ulster loyalist attack in the village of Greysteel was on a bar frequented by both Protestants and Catholics. The gunmen killed seven people, including a fellow Protestant.
Despite widespread condemnation of both incidents, the atmosphere appeared unpromising for ending the spate of killings as Major addressed the House of Commons Nov. 1.
Ian Paisley, leader of Northern Ireland's Democratic Unionist Party, said the best way to halt the violence was not by talking, but by interning without trial paramilitary activists suspected of terrorist acts.
John Hume, leader of the mainly Catholic Social Democratic and Labour Party, who has been holding talks with Gerry Adams, president of Sinn Fein, the political wing of the IRA, insisted on Oct. 31 that internment was not a practical option. The Dublin government later indicated that it would not support internment.
Major and Reynolds agree that the IRA must not be allowed to the negotiating table until it renounces violence. Mr. Hume, however, notes that most of the terrorist attacks in the province in recent months have been the work of loyalist gunmen.
Major is in a double bind as he searches for solutions in Northern Ireland.
Britain has 20,000 troops deployed in the province, and these are a drain on Army manpower at a time when the government wants to make defense cuts. But Major has a majority of only 17 in the House of Commons and is dependent on the support of Ulster Unionist members of parliament. Hume argues that this gives the Protestant parliamentarians a virtual veto over any peace proposals the government may make.
Major told the House of Commons on Nov. 1 that talks between the constitutional parties, stalled since last year, were the most promising option in the search for peace. Nationalist politicians in Belfast note, however, that much of the political leg-work is being done by Dublin, not by London.
Dick Spring, the Irish foreign minister, last week listed six principles that he said could be the basis of a settlement. The principles included bringing the IRA into the peace process, on condition that it renounces violence.
Mr. Spring also signaled that his government would be willing to drop Dublin's long-standing constitutional claim to sovereignty over Northern Ireland, but this failed to impress loyalist groups.
David Trimble, a Unionist parliamentarian, attacked the six principles as ``an agenda for uniting Ireland under the Dublin government.''
Hume claims that his talks with Mr. Adams yielded evidence that the IRA might be willing to call off its 25-year campaign of terror. But details of the Hume-Adams exchanges remain secret, and Unionist politicians say they fear Adams is demanding that Britain remove its troops from Northern Ireland as the price for agreeing to a cease-fire.
Hume argues that the British government has admitted it cannot defeat the terrorists, and that the IRA accepts it cannot force British troops out of Northern Ireland. In a nationally televised interview Oct. 31, Hume said: ``Surely in these circumstances negotiation is the answer.''
Logical though this may appear, it does not meet Major's political difficulties. These have been compounded by apparent misjudgments on Adams's part.
Although the Sinn Fein president condemned the Oct. 23 bombing in Belfast, he was photographed acting as a pallbearer at the funeral of the IRA bomber who died in the blast. This enabled loyalist parliamentarians to denounce Adams as a hypocrite and prompted the London authorities to ban him from visiting the British mainland.