Associated Press

October 22, 1994

An AP News Analysis

By SHAWN POGATCHNIK Associated Press Writer

BELFAST, Northern Ireland (AP) -- Britain, seizing the opportunity of an Irish Republican Army cease-fire, has cleared the way for negotiations with the IRA's political allies before Christmas.

Now the high-wire act begins in earnest.

Britain's agreement to open a dialogue with the Sinn Fein political party represents a fundamental breakthrough, but it's only a first step on the path to talks involving other Northern Ireland parties.

Once at the table, British civil servants will find it tough to talk compromise with a Sinn Fein-IRA movement clinging to its weapons and determined to see the British exit Northern Ireland. It will be even harder considering the need not to alienate the Irish Republican Army's numerous opponents in Northern Ireland.

Pro-British Protestant leaders are divided over whether to trust Prime Minister John Major, who on Friday assured Northern Ireland's 1.56 million residents that negotiations wouldn't unfold behind closed doors.

Sidestepping his previous vows of no talks unless the IRA clearly renounced violence, Major said the seven-week lapse in IRA gun and bomb attacks meant the time was right to move. He announced the end of longtime "exclusion orders" on Sinn Fein leaders Gerry Adams and Martin McGuinness, freeing the two men to travel to Britain as heads of any negotiating delegation.

The extreme Democratic Unionist Party led by the Rev. Ian Paisley brands Major a liar for agreeing to open talks with a group that, the Protestant firebrand argues, will resume its bloody campaign if it doesn't get its way.

The larger Ulster Unionist Party, whose lawmakers support Major in British Parliament, has taken a more conciliatory line, believing that the IRA's decision Aug. 31 to lay down arms presents an opportunity.

But even moderate Ulster Unionists see the coming talks as a chance to pressure the IRA into handing over its weaponry, not as a two-way bargaining forum.

Seasoned observers of the Northern Ireland conflict think the prospect of an up-front IRA disarmament is remote.

Sinn Fein, for its part, seeks a trove of concessions from Britain. It has pledged to recommend a handover of IRA weaponry only in the context of a broad settlement, including the removal of British troops and a similar disarmament agreement on the Protestant "loyalist" side of the fence.

Sinn Fein leaders want military barracks and surveillance posts to be dismantled, particularly along Northern Ireland's 300-mile border with the independent Irish Republic, and the province's mostly Protestant police force to be drastically reformed. Above all, Sinn Fein holds to its principal faith that any lasting settlement should abolish the border that has divided Ireland since 1920.

By contrast, Britain has committed itself to subjecting any negotiated settlement to approval by referendum within Northern Ireland, a vote guaranteed to reaffirm majority wishes to stay linked to Britain.

Britain may find it easier to grant conditional releases to many of 800-odd IRA prisoners serving sentences for arms possession, shootings and bombings.

The Ulster Volunteer Force and Ulster Defense Association, outlawed groups committed to slaying Catholics in hopes of preventing a united Ireland, last week matched the Catholic-based IRA with a truce of their own.

With no immediate prospect of a return to killing by either extreme, politicians most likely have several months to hammer out their differences or to reach agreements despite them. Some think the absence of violence will make all the difference, both in the expected Sinn Fein-British talks and round-table negotiations to follow.

said John Hume, Catholic leader of the moderate Social Democratic and Labor Party, which wants Ireland united but opposes the IRA.

Hume's secret meetings last year with Adams helped end Sinn Fein's political isolation, and encouraged Irish republicans to see a cease-fire as the best way to achieve their goals.

Achieving that goal will require historically irreconcilable claims to melt away. But even a few months ago to have gambled on this much progress -- mutual cease-fires and Protestant acquiescence in British-IRA peace feelers -- would have seemed a fool's bet.

EDITOR'S NOTE: Shawn Pogatchnik has covered Northern Ireland for The Associated Press since 1991.