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New step for Irish peace

Good-faith efforts toward Irish peace and progress have to continue despite the skepticism that customarily greets them on one side or another. The latest of these efforts gets formally under way May 30 when an extraordinary forum meets in Dublin to start six months of consultations on how to achieve peace and stability through democratic processes.

It is extraordinary in that the Irish Republic's three major political parties are joining in common cause, and that Northern Ireland's major nationalist party, John Hume's Social Democratic and Labour Party (SDLP), will be sitting down with them. Skepticism about results rises on various points. One is the absence and indeed opposition of the invited Unionist parties representing Northern Ireland's Protestant majority.

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The challenge in Dublin is to arrive at recommendations beyond narrow partisan or sectarian appeal. The delegates will have to speak not only to their nationalist and Roman Catholic constituency, calculated at some 80 percent of the island's population, but to the Unionists of the North and to the key player , the British government. The latter has taken a godspeed-but-wait-and-see attitude. It suggests the proof will be in the pudding, while noting that no outcome could affect its basic position that Northern Ireland would remain a part of the United Kingdom as long as this was the will of the majority.

Britain is watching its own initiative for permitting the people of Northern Ireland to get together for reducing direct British rule by stages if they choose. The mechanism is the still young Northern Ireland Assembly. It remains a body more for scrutinizing issues than for making proposals so long as the elected SDLP candidates refuse to take their seats. But on the Unionist and nonsectarian Alliance Party side it is receiving some credit for promoting increased political participation.

The Dublin forum dedicated to ''a new Ireland'' has antagonized Protestants who read this simply as a ''united Ireland.'' There is no doubt that this is the long-range goal of the nationalist participants. But they know it is not now in the cards. According to one analysis, some nationalists are believed to think the consultations may illustrate the difficulties of unification to the point of reducing pressures for it.

At the same time there is a strong concern in the SDLP and the Dublin parties about IRA violence in the name of nationalism. In addition to the sheer tragedy of this violence and the counterviolence it has spawned, there is its economic drain on the Irish Republic as well as on the United Kingdom.

Thus the forum is closed to any parties that do not abjure violence. It will seek to show that there are effective democratic alternatives to the gun. Mr. Hume's nonviolent approach thus might get a boost among Northern Irish nationalists in the forthcoming British general election. The aim would be to win away support for violence not only among the Irish but the Americans who provide so much financial backing of it.

The consultations also could lead to recommendations for means of Irish cooperation across the border in ways other than full political union. The recent joint visit to the United States by the lord mayors of Belfast and Dublin was a symbol of cooperation already taking place in tourism and other economic fields. A pipeline for Irish Republic natural gas to Northern Ireland is one project high on the agenda. Some see the growth of such ''accommodations'' as particularly promising when the search for ''solutions'' is so elusive.

Another forum possibility is recommendation of constitutional change or other indications in the Irish Republic that it is willing to move away from sectarianism and ensure the rights of the Protestant minority in any federated or united Ireland of the future. Here skepticism again arises with the recent Dublin moves toward what amounts to legal entrenchment of Catholic doctrine on abortion.

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But, as suggested earlier, skepticism should not mean withholding good wishes for those keeping up the effort to find initiatives for peace. Dublin's temperate Irish Times said that the new forum ''offers a hope brighter than any that has appeared on the gloomy scene of North-South relations for a long time.'' That hope should be given a chance to justify itself.

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