Belfast: A Whiff Of Peace In The Spring Air

Stormont Castle, the heart of British power in Northern Ireland, is a brooding edifice in the hills above Belfast. But the jackdaws crowing from its towers and the stone hellhounds guarding its entrance belied a new mood of cautious optimism as talks on the province's political future resumed in a nearby building on June 3.

The chances of drawing one of the world's most intractable conflicts to a close are better now than they have been for years. New British Prime Minister Tony Blair brings energy and a clean slate to the peace process, which has sputtered since the Irish Republican Army ended its 18-month cease-fire with a bomb near London's Canary Wharf in February, 1996. "I believe [Blair] is very determined and will push hard for progress," says former U.S. Senate Majority Leader George J. Mitchell, who is chairing the talks.

The key is how the IRA uses electoral gains by Sinn Fein, its political wing led by Gerry Adams. It has won two seats in Britain's Parliament and helped install a member of the moderate, mostly Catholic, Social Democratic & Labor Party (SDLP) as Mayor of Belfast. That ended years of domination by Unionists, who want Ulster to remain part of Britain. The IRA could opt to hang up its guns and play a political card. "I am convinced that the republicans are prepared in the right circumstances to have a cease-fire," says a Sinn Fein official.

A BUSTLING DOWNTOWN. There is a growing sense on Belfast's streets, too, that the long nightmare might end. Commercial real estate prices have doubled since August, 1994. The downtown area is bustling with fancy shops, restaurants, and even an Internet cafe. Foreign investment continues to pour in, aided by big government incentives. Exports were up 18% last fiscal year. "This shows you how well we would do if we had stability," says Roy McNulty, chairman of aerospace company Short Brothers, a major employer.

However, there's still a tricky road to travel. And time is short. The summer marching season, with its partisan and provocative demonstrations, is approaching. If Blair and Mitchell can't get results, the process could unravel fast.

Blair first has to secure a new IRA cease-fire. Then, he must lever Sinn Fein into the talks. Past parleys have broken down at that point: Unionists refuse to meet with Sinn Fein until the IRA disarms, a demand IRA militants reject.

Blair has a better crack at escaping this catch-22 situation than did his predecessor, John Major. Blair's huge majority means that, unlike Major, he is not beholden to any of the parties in the talks. The Tories were in hock to the Ulster Unionist Party, whose votes they needed to stay in power. The Unionists used that leverage to block the talks.

WARNINGS. But with the change of power in London, they may now calculate that it's time to deal before their influence slips further. Apart from their election gains, Catholics are gradually catching up with Protestants in population numbers and economic clout. Jobs created in the 1990s have gone mostly to Catholics, who now buy homes in wealthy neighborhoods and are enrolling in university in greater numbers.

Blair's negotiators can afford to be even-handed. Already, his brash Northern Ireland Secretary, Marjorie Mowlam, has roiled Unionists by warning them that talks would proceed without them if they won't sit down with Sinn Fein. She gave Sinn Fein the same message.

Getting Sinn Fein to the table, of course, is not the same as having the talks catch fire. For that, the mainstream unionist party, the UUP, and its nationalist counterpart, the SDLP, must compromise. If they do, civilians may finally wrest the peace process from the IRA and Protestant paramilitaries.

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