N. Ireland Drags Its Conflict Toward Peace Table

Likely talks between Unionists, Sinn Fein would be first since Ireland's 1921 split.

Inch by inch, the way to a political settlement in Northern Ireland is becoming clearer.

British and Irish government ministers have welcomed a decision by the Ulster Unionist Party (UUP) to return to the peace talks in Belfast, despite a terrorist attack by a republican group that devastated the center of a market town near the Northern Ireland capital on Tuesday.

David Trimble, the UUP leader, says he and his colleagues intended to "confront Sinn Fein" and draw attention to its "fascist tendencies," but British officials privately note it is the first time the UUP has agreed to meet under the same roof with the political wing of the Irish Republican Army (IRA).

Northern Ireland Secretary Mo Mowlam praised Mr. Trimble's "courageous" decision. Irish Foreign Minister Ray Burke said the "unprecedented" presence of the UUP and Sinn Fein under the same roof was "hugely significant." Trimble led his party's delegation into Belfast's Stormont Castle after long hesitation. As head of Northern Ireland's largest and most influential Protestant political party, his presence was seen as an indication that the UUP was readying itself to enter multiparty peace talks.

Trimble said Wednesday that he and his team were "not here to negotiate" with Sinn Fein. But an official close to Ms. Mowlam forecast that it "would only be a matter of time" before the UUP agreed to face Sinn Fein President Gerry Adams across the conference table.

Two key factors appear to have persuaded Trimble to return to the peace talks:

In the past month, he has consulted widely within Northern Ireland's Protestant community. Although the results of his inquiries remain secret, it has been reported that a large majority in the province want the peace process to continue and fear that if the UUP stays away it will lose influence over the process.

Perhaps even more persuasive has been a threat that now hangs over all the political groups. The London and Dublin governments have warned that if there is no progress at Stormont by May next year, they will order referendums and ask Ireland's voters to support a political settlement.

Trimble has remained silent about the warning, but Wednesday David Ervine, leader of the small Progressive Unionist Party, told reporters that "time was running out" for the politicians.

Mr. Ervine is close to Protestant paramilitary groups and is said by supporters to be glad the UUP has agreed to reenter the peace process.

With Sinn Fein already at the table, and the UUP and smaller unionist groups apparently on the way, the only significant "stay away" is the Rev. Ian Paisley, who said yesterday that his Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) would continue its boycott.

If Trimble does agree to sit opposite Mr. Adams and other Sinn Fein representatives, it will be the first time since Ireland's partition in 1921 that the two sides have participated in full-scale round-table negotiations.

Before entering Stormont Wednesday, Trimble condemned Mr. Paisley for boycotting the talks, and accused his DUP of endangering the unionist cause. "Those who walk out leave the union undefended," Trimble said. "They leave it to the tender mercies of the British and Irish governments."

Inside Stormont, the unionists and Sinn Fein have offices on separate floors. There is a canteen facility that they will have to share.

A remarkable aspect of the progress registered Wednesday was that the bomb that exploded a day earlier in Markethill did not appear to influence Trimble and the UUP, even though they accused the IRA of planting it.

Police sources said they had no conclusive proof that it was the work of the IRA. There have been suggestions that a splinter group was responsible. "The IRA generally admit what they do, even when they commit terrible atrocities," John Hume, leader of the nationalist and mainly Roman Catholic Social Democratic and Labour Party said Wednesday. "The real question is whether they have stopped their campaign of violence, and I believe they have."

Mr. Hume described the UUP's entry into Stormont as "a major step forward" and a sign that the peace process was "advancing."

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