The next six weeks may decide whether roundtable talks on Northern Ireland begin to make genuine progress in the fall - or bog down amid recrimination and violence.
After 40 days of procedural nit-picking, the discussions in Belfast went into recess this week after notching up what their chairman, former US Sen. George Mitchell, called "a modest success," and on what a senior Irish government official said was "a relatively high note."
The achievement, Mr. Mitchell said, was for most of the participants to have agreed on "rules and procedures" for substantive talks when they resume Sept. 9.
What they had not managed to do, he conceded before returning to Washington to report to President Clinton, was decide on an agenda for tackling the most substantive issue of all: decommissioning terrorist weapons held by both unionist and republican paramilitary groups.
Studies by British researchers stress the dangers posed by a new Irish Republican Army (IRA) strategy of attacking economic targets in London and other large cities. Paul Rogers, a leading terrorism analyst at Bradford University in Yorkshire, says economic targeting has "potential for economic and social disruption, and the indirect application of pressure" on Britain.
The British and Irish governments will likely use the six-week pause in the talks to try to persuade the IRA to restore the cease-fire that it broke in February with a large bomb in London's financial district - an attack that Mr. Rogers sees as an example of an economic target. But they will do so against a backdrop of potential conflict between Northern Ireland's two religious communities.
August is the high point of the province's "marching season," a time when people of both religions hold parades commemorating emotionally charged historical events. Over three months, there are 3,000 such marches in the province.
ONE of the most sensitive is set for Aug. 10 in Londonderry. The Apprentice Boys March marks the day in 1689 when a group of Protestant youths averted the surrender of the city to the deposed King James II, a Catholic.
On Wednesday, Prime Ministers John Bruton of Ireland and John Major of Britain spent 20 minutes discussing progress in the Belfast peace talks and the possibility of violence on Aug. 10. A spokesman for Mr. Major described their exchange as "entirely friendly."
It was their first contact since mid-July when Mr. Bruton bitterly attacked a British decision to allow members of the Protestant Orange Order to march through Catholic areas of Portadown - a move that led to five days of widespread violence that threatened a breakdown of peace talks.
In a bid to find some way of taking the sting out of the marching season, Northern Ireland Secretary Sir Patrick Mayhew appointed Peter North, vice chancellor of Oxford University, to head an inquiry.
But Mr. North, a distinguished lawyer, said he could not begin in time to prevent trouble in the next few weeks. Protestant and Catholic leaders in Londonderry and elsewhere have been holding talks aimed at preventing violent outbreaks.
Organizers of the Apprentice Boys March say they will not be dissuaded from mounting their parade. British security sources say a large police presence will be mobilized along the route.
If the marching season comes off without serious violence, British authorities will still have to work hard to avoid further terrorist attacks. A serious difficulty facing Major and British security authorities is that evidence points to a split in the IRA, with a well-equipped radical wing operating in England beyond the influence of the organization's ruling council.
A huge car bomb attack on a Manchester shopping center June may have been the work of the splinter group.