Tentative signs of progress emerge in N. Ireland Secret talks point to peace initiative


BELFAST, Northern Ireland -- After the recent breakthrough agreement in the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, can Northern Ireland next?

"Breakthrough" would be too strong a word for what is happening here.

But significant shifts appear to be taking place in the positions of both the British government and Sinn Fein, the legal political wing of the outlawed Irish Republican Army.

Such speculation has intensified since an announcement last weekend that secret talks between leaders of Sinn Fein and the mainly Roman Catholic Social Democratic and Labor Party had produced enough progress for them to submit a report to the Irish government in Dublin.

The new initiative was announced by Sinn Fein's leader, Gerry Adams, and the influential moderate Catholic leader in the north, John Hume, who is a member of the British and European parliaments and head of the Social Democratic and Labor Party.

The initial reaction of Sir Patrick Mayhew, Britain's secretary for Northern Ireland, was conciliatory.

He promised to study any document the Irish government might pass on.

Sinn Fein and Mr. Adams are excluded from formal peace negotiations that involve other northern political parties, Catholic and Protestant, and the Irish and British governments. The exclusion stems from Sinn Fein's refusal to denounce IRA violence.

As the debate has raged, the IRA has continued its attacks.

In recent days, the IRA has detonated three huge bombs in Northern Ireland that killed no one but caused millions of dollars in property damage. Since 1969, the civil strife against British rule has killed more than 3,000.

In the latest incident, police said, three IRA bombs exploded in London early yesterday, wounding five people.

The IRA took responsibility for the bombings.

Officials in Dublin, in the north and in Britain condemned the attacks in television broadcasts.

The announcement of the peace initiative by Mr. Hume and Mr. Adams caught both the Irish and British governments by surprise.

There is still uncertainty about just what progress they have achieved.

Some newspaper reports said the Hume-Adams proposals call for Britain to renounce its long-term claim to Northern Ireland and embrace the right of Irish people as a whole to self-determination.

Sir Patrick, toughening his line Wednesday, told the Belfast Telegraph that the IRA would be rebuffed if those were its terms for ending bloodshed. He said any settlement would have to represent the self-determination of people living in Northern Ireland.

Despite his remarks, designed to appease worried Protestants, statements by British and Sinn Fein officials have pointed to more flexible positions.

"Everybody you meet says it's quite obvious that the British are going to talk," Martin McGuinness, a Sinn Fein leader, told the London newspaper the Independent last week.

"The important thing is that important elements to the conflict are coming to a position where they now accept that there has to be inclusive dialogue."

Mr. Adams and Mr. McGuinness seized power in Sinn Fein in the 1970s.

The previous IRA leadership had agreed to a cease-fire, having believed that the British were on the verge of offering major concessions.

Mr. Adams and Mr. McGuinness did not agree and pushed a hard line that has prevailed for years.

But their thinking appears to have softened with age and experience. Recent statements by Sinn Fein officials have stressed that the organization is willing to consider interim arrangements, including joint British-Irish sovereignty over Northern Ireland, before its goal of Irish unity is achieved.

Sinn Fein also appears willing to agree to an IRA cease-fire in exchange for a British declaration of intent to withdraw from the province eventually. It has also expressed willingness to negotiate an interim constitutional arrangement with Protestant Unionists.

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