N. Irish Peacebroker Warns of a Broken Peace

Nobel Peace Prize nominee says Clinton's visit may 'renew momentum' toward deal

JOHN HUME, whose secret talks with the political wing of the Irish Republican Army (IRA) triggered the cease-fire in Northern Ireland 15 months ago, is worried that the peace process is in danger of unraveling.

''The burden is now on the British government to show more flexibility if the current peace is to be built on,'' Mr. Hume told the Monitor in an interview.

In the British House of Commons, Hume is leader of the Social and Democratic Labour Party, which is mainly Catholic and favors unification with the Irish Republic, but has consistently condemned violence in Northern Ireland.

Some years ago a paramilitary group bombed Hume's house in Londonderry - an attack that reinforced his conviction that ''peace is the only way forward.''

''The overall atmosphere on the streets of Northern Ireland has been transformed,'' Hume said. ''But lasting stability can only be based on agreement on how we are to be governed in future. I would have thought the London government would have shown more urgency in inviting all parties to the table.''

Hume is cautiously hopeful that President Clinton's planned visits to London, Dublin, and Belfast next week will help to ''renew the necessary momentum,'' but says more investment in Northern Ireland is essential in the follow-up to the cease-fires.

The interview took place between a parliamentary division at Westminster and Hume's departure for Brussels, where he spends much of his time as a member of the European Parliament.

Last year, Hume persuaded the IRA and the leader of its political wing, Sinn Fein president Gerry Adams, to order a halt to the violence that had taken more than 3,000 lives in 25 years. This led, less than a month later, to a reciprocal cease-fire by Protestant paramilitary groups.

Holding their fire

Since then, there have been no deaths in Northern Ireland caused by paramilitary shootings or bombings, although neither side has relinquished its weapons arsenal. Hume has campaigned ceaselessly for ''a decisive step forward.''

But that cannot happen, he told the Monitor, until Britain ''modifies its demand that the IRA should begin handing in their weapons before all-party talks begin.

''At no stage was the decommissioning of arms mentioned as a precondition of talks starting up,'' Hume said. ''The first objective was a total cessation of violence, followed by talks involving the London and Dublin governments and the parties in Northern Ireland.... That is a process which threatens no section of our community. It is a challenge to all of us.''

Mr. Adams and other leading figures in Sinn Fein have continued to resist handing in IRA weapons before talks begin, and although Hume has tried hard in the past 15 months to strike an evenhanded stance, he does not disguise his sympathy for Sinn Fein's stand.

''There is a psychological factor at work here,'' Hume said. ''Calling for the IRA to hand in their arms is asking them to surrender. There is no historical precedent for that, and it won't happen. It is simply an unrealistic demand.

''I have therefore proposed that parallel to the talks process there should be an independent commission that would make sure all parties are committed to democracy and peace and would look at the arms issue in that context.''

Major's margin

So far, Britain has not responded to that idea. Hume says a key reason is Prime Minister John Major's narrow majority in the House of Commons. It gives the nine members of Parliament from Northern Ireland who want to maintain British rule - ''unionists'' who demand a surrender of IRA weapons - leverage over the government.

''The unionists have been made the best offer they have ever received,'' Hume said. ''Until now they have always relied on British governments to guarantee their position, but they have never really trusted British governments.

''They are now being offered an opportunity to settle their own future in the context of agreement between our divided people.

''If the root of the problem is political arithmetic at Westminster, it will be an awful tragedy if the people of Northern Ireland are going to be made victims of that.''

Soon after last year's cease-fires were declared, Hume was nominated by members of the European Parliament for a Nobel Peace Prize. His quest for peace arises from a simple guiding principle: ''Unless there is dialogue and agreement between a divided people, peace will be impossible.

''There is a great new mood in our streets, particularly among young people who have seen violence recede for the first time in their lives,'' he said. ''The new atmosphere is putting pressure on the politicians to ensure that we don't go back to the tragedies of the past 25 years. I believe both sections of our people want to move swiftly toward lasting peace.''

Will Mr. Clinton's visit help? Hume chose his words carefully.

''There has been massive international goodwill toward our situation since the cease-fires, particularly from the United States. There are 42 million Americans of Irish descent, and President Clinton has given very positive expression to that. In particular he has offered economic assistance to our province, and this has created enormous goodwill at grass-roots level.

''The solution to Northern Ireland's problems,'' Hume said, ''is not only political.''

''We must move to use the new situation to encourage inward investment. While we seek to reach political agreement - and that won't be easy - we should be working together on the economic front and harness the international goodwill to the benefit of all our people. That will build the trust which will help on the political front.''

Yet it should be possible for Britain to help break the current political logjam, Hume said.

''I have no doubt that if John Major were to move in the direction I am suggesting, by showing more flexibility, there would be an overwhelming majority in the House of Commons.''

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