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Thin ray of hope shines through clouded N. Ireland

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There is quiet hope that the Belfast conference on Northern Ireland may produce results. The pot at the end of the rainbow may not contain gold, nor even signed agreements. But Britain's Northern Ireland Secretary, Humphrey Atkins, is modestly confident that "we shall emerge with firm pointers for tackling the next stage."

That may sound like diplomatic double talk. But in an arena where Northern Ireland's 1 million Protestants and half-million Roman Catholic minority have not often talked -- not to mention agreed -- the fact that the conference has survived for 28 sessions since Jan. 7 in what Mr. Atkins calls "an amicable and workmanlike atmosphere" is, he feels, promising.

Mr. Atkins, over a luncheon with American journalists, observed that one of the first unanimous decisions of the parties was that, apart from a daily press statement, the deliberations should be hidden in secrecy.

Unlike last fall's Rhodesia conference in London, the to-ings and fro-ings of debate are not being detailed to the world. So Mr. Atkins' optimism -- although not unexpected from the promoter and organizer of this latest initiative -- gleams all the more brightly through the Irish mist.While refusing to be drawn on details, he noted that there had been some agreement on "a surprising number of things" -- more, he said, than one would guess from the public statements issued by the parties.

Mr. Atkins hopes to bring the conference to a close sometime after Easter and then place before Parliament a plan for future action. That action, as he sees it, will not consider unification with the Republic of Ireland nor independence for Northern Ireland, neither of which is on the 14-point agenda.

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