Northern Ireland Talks Face Many Pitfalls Getting Everyone to the Table Is Only the Start; the IRA and Protestant Unionists Have Quite Different Agendas

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PRESIDENT Clinton's recent decision to lift the ban on official contacts between the United States and the political wing of the Irish Republican Army (IRA), Sinn Fein, suggests that Northern Ireland could follow South Africa and the Middle East on the fast track to peace.

Coming just five weeks after the IRA cease-fire, the Clinton administration's decision immediately elevated Sinn Fein leader Gerry Adams to a new level of respectability. A man who several months ago was viewed as the mastermind of the IRA's bombing campaign against soldiers and civilians gave a news conference on the US Capitol steps, dined with members of Congress, and even appeared on Larry King Live.

The administration seems to be saying that it believes the IRA cease-fire will be permanent.

Two realities have tipped the IRA toward a strategy of peace - for now. But enormous political progress will have to be made before that peace can be considered permanent. The first reality is that the status of the Catholic community has risen dramatically within the last quarter-century. The second reality is that the IRA's shooting war against the British has dragged on just as long without a victory.

Catholics in Northern Ireland have benefited from universal access to public education, bolstered by social legislation initiated in the 1970s. These changes have helped create a large Catholic middle class and a new generation of political leaders. Both are the mainstay of the Social Democratic and Labour Party (SDLP), whose effectiveness in pursuing Irish unity by peaceful means has made it the most influential nationalist party in Northern Irish history. Adding to the Catholic community's enhanced status is the evolution of British policy toward acknowledging the aspirations for Irish unity.

The first official step in this direction came in 1985 with the Anglo-Irish Agreement, in which the British government accepted the SDLP view that the constitutional status of Northern Ireland cannot be resolved without involving the Republic of Ireland. In return, the Irish government conceded that Northern Ireland would remain British as long as the majority voted to do so. Last year's Downing Street Declaration, issued by the British and Irish governments, took an important second step by offering to include Sinn Fein in talks about Northern Ireland's future - if the IRA would call a permanent cease-fire.

The unionist parties, who represent the Protestant majority, opposed both the Anglo-Irish Agreement and the Downing Street Declaration, while much of the political credit for both achievements has gone to SDLP leader John Hume. He, in turn, enjoys warm support from the Irish government and the Clinton administration. Shooting war failed

These developments have placed democratic nationalists in their strongest political position in 50 years, giving real weight to the claim that the best route to Irish unity is the political process. The IRA has been forced to confront the fact that it did not win its shooting war against the British and it was not likely to succeed in driving out the 18,000 British troops now stationed there. …

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