Bullish on Talks in Belfast


The quest for peace in Northern Ireland is getting under way again in an atmosphere of hope tempered by realism.

The hope is strong enough, analysts say, to fuel determination by London and Dublin that Wednesday's rejection by Ulster Unionists of an initial formula for disarming terrorists must not be allowed to be the end of the story.

Britain's Northern Ireland Secretary Marjorie "Mo" Mowlam and Irish Foreign Minister Ray Burke are making it clear that they will not let the Protestant Unionists' tough stand block the way for all-party peace talks set for Sept. 15.

Ms. Mowlam declared Wednesday that the Unionists' hostility to a plan to allow the Irish Republican Army to decommission its weapons while peace talks continue would not deflect her from her pursuit of a settlement. Previously, the IRA would have had to turn over all weapons before its political wing, Sinn Fein, was allowed to join the talks.

She and Mr. Burke plan to meet next Tuesday to discuss ways of overcoming the apparent deadlock. In a joint statement Wednesday, they said the meeting would be "to begin the necessary preparations for the start of substantive negotiations." The statement added, with a note of defiance: "The talks process goes on."

Since the IRA renewed its cease-fire last weekend, the initial optimism triggered by the move has been put into perspective by the reaction of Unionist politicians. On Wednesday, all Unionist parties voted down the decommissioning formula. But Mowlam and Burke are drawing hope from the decision of the official Ulster Unionist Party to stay in the talks.

David Trimble, the party leader, parted company with the Rev. Ian Paisley, leader of the radical Democratic Unionist Party, and Robert McCartney, who heads the small UK Unionist Party, both of whom quit the talks.

An adviser to Mowlam said the split within the Unionist movement "offers grounds for hope." Mowlam and Burke appear to believe that, as the IRA cease-fire takes hold and arrangements for decommissioning terrorist weapons are clarified, the fears of hard-line Unionists will begin to melt.

London and Dublin, with strong support from ex-US Sen. George Mitchell, chairman of the peace talks, plan to establish an international commission to supervise the handover of weapons.

Reflecting the widespread caution sparked by the IRA's latest cease-fire, commentator Mary Holland wrote in the Irish Times yesterday: "It isn't only the Unionists who wonder whether the IRA will hold to its unequivocal cessation of violence if what are bound to be extremely difficult negotiations get under way. Many Nationalists share these fears."

Among the ideas expected to be considered when Mowlam and Burke meet next week are talks patterned after those held in Dayton, Ohio, which led to peace in Bosnia. The British and Irish governments would act as intermediaries between the Ulster Unionist Party and Sinn Fein. British officials stress, however, that this approach would be adopted only as a last resort. The main goal is for Unionists and Sinn Fein to meet in Belfast around the same table.

One reason for guarded optimism as Sept. 15 approaches is the political changes in London and Dublin since the first IRA cease-fire collapsed in February 1996. British Prime Minister Tony Blair has an overwhelming majority in the House of Commons. This makes it impossible for Mr. Trimble to pressure London the way he did when former Prime Minister John Major had only a precarious majority. Also, new Irish Prime Minister Bertie Ahern has better relations with Sinn Fein than his predecessor, John Bruton. And Britain notes that Trimble cannot afford to ignore the sentiments of his own supporters, most of whom yearn for peace.

If Britain and Ireland decide that Northern Ireland's politicians have proved unable to transact a peace settlement among themselves, both governments would be willing to call referendums.

Public opinion polls suggest that if such an appeal were made over the heads of the politicians, the people of both parts of Ireland would vote resoundingly for an end to sectarian squabbling and violence.

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