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Northern Ireland Time Line

  Factions Begin Talks on Future of N. Ireland

By Glenn Frankel
Washington Post Foreign Service
Tuesday, June 18, 1991; Page A12

LONDON, JUNE 17 -- Sixteen years after they last sat down together in formal session, the leaders of Northern Ireland's antagonistic political factions opened landmark talks today on the troubled province's future, but not before a last-minute procedural wrangle almost prevented the talks from getting underway.

Officials present at the closed-door session in the heavily fortified Stormont parliament buildings outside Belfast said there was an opening statement by Northern Ireland Secretary Peter Brooke, the driving force behind these sessions, and position papers from each of the four parties -- the Protestant Democratic Unionists, the Ulster Unionists, the predominantly Catholic Social Democratic and Labor Party (SDLP), and the middle-of-the-road Alliance Party.

The leaders are discussing how to return local rule to the province, which for 17 years has been under direct control of London after a previous power-sharing agreement between Catholics and majority Protestants collapsed under the pressure of a Unionist-sponsored general strike. If the parties can come up with a new arrangement, they have agreed to present it at a second round of talks with the Dublin government, which remains committed to eventual reunification of the island.

But the parties have deeply conflicting goals that many analysts fear could quickly derail the discussions. The Unionists want local control of the province but do not want to share it with Catholic nationalists. They want a deal that shuts out Dublin and undermines the 1985 Anglo-Irish Accord, which they oppose. That accord gave Dublin a consulting voice in day-to-day management of Northern Ireland.

Nationalists are also wary of power-sharing and insist on a greater and more formalized role in Northern Irish affairs for their allies in Dublin.

The talks, which opened with a moment of silence for the 3,000 victims of more than 20 years of civil violence in the province, began after the factions finally agreed on a chairman for a future round.

The hitch was over approval of Sir Ninian Stephen, a diplomat and former governor-general of Australia, to chair the second stage of talks that would include the government of Ireland and take place only if this first round is successful. The Rev. Ian Paisley, leader of one of the Unionist factions at the table, held up the opening session for more than an hour while he and his followers purportedly checked out credentials of the British-born, little-known outsider.

Observers said Paisley was actually expressing pique over the fact that Stephen's name had been leaked to the public over the weekend after the governments of Britain and Ireland had approved the selection. In the end, however, they said the Unionist leader had little choice but to accept Stephen or risk being blamed for another delay in a session that initially had been scheduled to take place seven weeks ago.

Stephen, chosen after the Unionists turned down former British foreign secretary Lord Carrington, told the British Broadcasting Corp. he would take the chairman's post "with a certain amount of trepidation, understandably." He conceded that he had little knowledge of the Northern Ireland dispute but added, "I don't think it will be a disadvantage."

Excluded from the talks is Sinn Fein, the legal political wing of the outlawed Irish Republican Army, because it has refused to renounce violence. Sinn Fein President Gerry Adams said peace talks without his party were "like 'Hamlet' without the prince."

But the IRA, which is waging war against British rule in the province, left its calling card early this morning when two gunmen shot dead a part-time soldier who was emerging from his car at a Belfast tire depot. The killing was believed to be retaliation for the shooting of a suspected IRA member in West Belfast Sunday by Protestant paramilitaries.

© Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company

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