Talking substance in Belfast Peace talks: Key players are participating, which is a positive sign.

September 29, 1997

GREAT HOPES attend the negotiations at Stormont, near Belfast, that aim to bring accommodation to the Protestant and Catholic communities in Northern Ireland, to Northern Ireland and the Irish Republic, and to that republic and Britain. A business committee gets down to setting an agenda -- in itself, substance -- today.

Two developments, following the second IRA ceasefire, permit optimism. One is that John Hume, leader of the Social Democratic and Labor Party (SDLP), biggest vote-winner among the Catholic minority in the province, is not running for president of the Irish Republic, for which he is eligible. The nomination of major parties and therefore election to that figurehead post was his for the asking.

But Mr. Hume is the true architect of this peace process. Until there is an agreed outcome, his life's work is not done. After three decades, he is tired. But while his colleagues maintain that he is not indispensible, he carries more credibility in his own community and with the Protestant majority than any substitute. There can be no agreement without SDLP.

The other development is that the Ulster Unionist Party leader, David Trimble, came off intransigence into full participation. He can withstand his rival, the Rev. Ian Paisley, charging sellout. If there is to be a Northern Ireland regime, the Unionists would dominate it. If the Irish Republic is to deal with a Northern Ireland authority, that would be it. He is the most indispensible participant.

The third-ranking local leader involved is Gerry Adams of Sinn Fein. His party, tied to the IRA, is the best-funded with its own pipeline to American public opinion. But he is on the fringe, not the center. The talks can begin because the issue of IRA disarmament was briefly postponed. As they proceed, the IRA must satisfy a commission led by a Canadian general, John de Chastelain, for Mr. Adams to remain. And should a splinter group throw bombs, Sinn Fein and the IRA would have to convince the Irish and British governments they were doing everything possible to prevent it.

So this process could easily falter. Yet British Prime Minister Tony Blair has confidently demanded a rapid pace. The prospects are sufficiently real that David Trimble, John Hume and Gerry Adams dared not stay away.

Pub Date: 9/29/97

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