Several efforts to negotiate a new regime for Northern Ireland came to nothing in the 1970s. The present talks involving four of the five vote-getting parties of the province and the governments of Ireland and Britain carry no greater promise of success. The sticking-points then still stick. But the talks, chaired by a retired Australian judge and titular chief of state now an ambassador, do bring hope. They constitute the first such endeavor since 1976. That is progress in itself.
The expressed aim is to find a regime for limited autonomy of the province which the British government would grant. It is the Ulster Unionist Party and its splinter, the Democratic Unionist Party, from the Protestant majority community, that want this. To get it, they would have to agree to measures giving the Catholic minority, as represented by the Social Democratic and Labor Party, confidence. This would probably entail a sharing of power and a link to the Irish Republic. Protestants have resisted both, but the constituency has become disenchanted with its politicians' boycott of politics since the Anglo-Irish agreement of 1985. And the world -- including the European Community to which both parts of Ireland adhere -- has changed in 15 years.
Missing from the table is Sinn Fein, the political face of the Irish Republican Army (IRA), which won 11 percent of the vote in the general election of 1987. Sinn Fein was not invited ostensibly for refusing to renounce violence, and in reality because others might not come if it did. Sinn Fein's own policy would not let it attend, and an empty chair at the table would serve better than exclusion. In any case, the talks are not seeking a cease-fire from the IRA, but progress without one.
Any settlement would require consensus of the four parties on relations among them, their agreement with Dublin on relations between the two parts of Ireland, and accord between the British and Irish governments. It is a complicated business. Clearly required are first-class citizenship for all, the acceptability of both national traditions, a consultative role for Dublin and assured majority rule on status.
The unenforceable claim of the Irish Constitution of 1937 to the six counties is a barrier to settlement, and what the Protestant parties will raise with Dublin. Revision would require ratification by the Irish Republic's electorate, which would bring all the people of Ireland into any settlement, rendering it great legitimacy -- if one can be achieved. Ireland and Britain are both in the European Community and both civilized political environments. Northern Ireland is going to continue being inhabited by both Irish and Britons. Success for these talks should be within the realm of the imagination.