Ulster: Time to Talk

FURTHER progress toward peace in Northern Ireland has been delayed for many months now by intransigence on both sides over disarming the paramilitary groups. The British government and Northern Irish unionists insist that all-party talks cannot begin until the outlawed Irish Republican Army turns in its weapons. The IRA and its political wing, Sinn Fein, insist that disarmament on both sides - including unionist militias - must be a result of peace talks, not a precondition.

There matters stood, with neither side blinking, until Nov. 28, when British Prime Minister John Major and Irish Taoiseach (Prime Minister) John Bruton set up a three-member commission, the International Body chaired by former Sen. George Mitchell (D) of Maine, to examine the question. The group met with all parties in the conflict, heard from many individuals, and issued its report last week. It suggested a compromise: All-party talks should get under way and disarmament or ''decomissioning'' could begin during the negotiations. It also suggested a number of other confidence-building measures.

At this point Mr. Major stunned his counterpart in Dublin by proposing elections for an assembly to prepare for peace talks. This key unionist demand was immediately rejected by the moderate nationalists of the Social Democratic and Labour Party and Sinn Fein. The Mitchell commission had alluded to the possibility of elections, it's true, but only ''if it were broadly acceptable, with an appropriate mandate'' and within the London-Belfast-Dublin structure that has overseen peace efforts since early this decade. Dublin and the nationalists worry the elections London has in mind would simply be a repeat of regional assemblies elected before, in which the unionists held a majority of seats and simply refused to consider nationalist concerns and complaints. They believe Major has thrown the Mitchell report into the wastebasket.

For his part, Major is in a box. The parliamentary majority of his Conservative Party is down to three votes, two of which he appears likely to lose in by-elections. After that he may well need the support of Ulster unionists in Parliament to survive. The last thing the Tories want right now is national elections; they are far behind the Labour Party opposition in public-opinion polls. At the same time, President Clinton, who has involved the US in the Northern Irish question to an unprecedented degree by his meetings with Sinn Fein leader Gerry Adams, will undoubtedly press Major to back down. As of this writing, Sir Patrick Mahew, Britain's secretary of state for Northern Ireland, was set to meet with Irish Foreign Minister Dick Spring Feb. 1 to try to iron out the differences between London and Dublin.

The British government should adopt the Mitchell formula, which would force the IRA to commit itself to a democratic and peaceful approach and allow all-party talks to begin. While British reticence to deal with IRA terrorists is understandable, the example of Israel and the PLO shows that flexibility can have positive and desirable results. Unionists must understand that merely talking to their enemies in no way compromises or threatens their wish to remain British subjects.

There is plenty of blame to go around - to the British, unionists, and the IRA - for Northern Ireland's sorry history. The point of beginning peace talks is not for one side to declare victory over the other. It is to stop the killing - forever. That is the Christian approach.

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