A future for Northern Ireland All-party talks: Hobbled by election, need cease-fire, have a chance.

June 08, 1996

THE NEGOTIATIONS on Northern Ireland scheduled to start Monday offer the best chance for reconciliation in the province in a quarter-century. They will gather in one room the British and Irish governments and the 10 provincial parties that did best in the election held last month. Former U.S. Sen. George Mitchell, who will chair them, has earned the trust of most people involved, from his previous chairmanship of the panel on illicit weapons.

Talks of constitutional import need participation of the party that came in fourth in that election with 15.5 percent of the vote, Sinn Fein. The others could proceed and Sinn Fein would have missed the bus, but the prospect of renewed strife would nullify the optimism required for a fresh start.

As long as the British and Irish governments agree, the rules are understood. They require a permanent cease-fire by its clandestine alter ego, the IRA, for Sinn Fein to enter by the front door. The IRA has been silent, declaring nothing while blowing nothing up, in recent weeks.

No one pretends that these talks will produce a united Irish state in the immediate future, which the IRA did pretend it was fighting for. The new buzz word is an agreed Ireland, which is obtainable. With Britain and Ireland partners in the European Union, with the common interests of all people in Ireland greater than their differences, there is no excuse for barriers between the two communities in Northern Ireland, the two parts of Ireland and the two main British Isles.

The Irish were right and the British wrong about the election, which the Irish advised against holding. It was meant to legitimize the participating parties, but like Israel's election the day before, turned on fear rather than hope and strengthened the intransigent parties at the expense of moderates.

But negotiations that begin with a majority committed to seeking accommodation can create momentum for consensus. Continued terrorism by a segment of the community can always prevent that, but can never build an alternative.

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