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Britain's Northern Ireland Minister Wins Promise to Talk From Key Antagonists

PETER BROOKE, Britain's Northern Ireland minister, has achieved what many thought impossible - getting the province's bitter enemies around a negotiating table. In a breakthrough that spelled out new hope for the divided island, he won the agreement of Protestant and Roman Catholic leaders to talk about power-sharing in Northern Ireland, which is ruled by Britain as a province. The talks will also involve Ireland's government, whose initial reluctance to take part looked likely to torpedo the process.

After 14 months of painstaking negotiations that often appeared doomed to failure, Mr. Brooke was able to confirm on March 25 that all sides had agreed to talk.

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Brooke, who will spell out the details in the British Parliament March 27, said: "I am grateful to the Irish government and to the parties in Northern Ireland for responding within the time scale suggested to the proposed statement the government recently put to them."

In a sudden flurry of activity March 25, the moderate nationalist Social Democratic and Labor Party (SDLP) and the middle-of-the-road Alliance Party agreed to the Brooke blueprint for talks. Then came the big breakthrough: Unionist leaders representing Northern Ireland's 1 million-strong Protestant majority accepted the formula too.

Northern Ireland has been ruled directly from London since 1974. Almost 3,000 people have died since 1969 in the battle by the outlawed Irish Republican Army to oust Britain from the province.

History does not favor unbridled optimism in Northern Ireland. Several attempts have been made since 1974 to return the province to some form of devolved local government shared by often implacable foes.

The Unionists have always strongly opposed any agreement that might lead to unification with the Irish Republic.

Brooke's biggest test will come next month when he gets the parties around the negotiating table to hammer out what could prove to be irreconcilable differences.

The predominantly Catholic nationalists, outnumbered 2 to 1 in the province, will be eager for some kind of executive power-sharing. The Unionists, led by fiery preacher-politician Ian Paisley and fellow Unionist leader James Molyneaux, will be pushing for majority rule.

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But Moderate nationalist Seamus Mallon, the SDLP deputy leader, was upbeat. "I think with goodwill and the type of resolve we should all have, we should be able to come up with an approach to a solution to this problem."

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