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Hope for North Ireland

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IT'S still too early to say whether talks aimed at finding a political solution to Northern Ireland's problems have any chance of producing agreement. The gap between the province's political parties remains enormous. But the fact that the talks, which got under way earlier this month, have been able to take place at all is being hailed as a major political breakthrough.

It isn't just that for the first time in more than 15 years, leaders of the rival communities in Northern Ireland are sitting around the same table with the British and Irish governments. It's the new willingness to compromise that has raised hopes that a considerable measure of self-government can finally be restored to the 1.5 million people of Northern Ireland, who have been subject to direct rule from London since 1972.

Perhaps the most striking change has taken place in the Republic of Ireland itself, where the desire for a united Ireland has been lost. According to a recent opinion poll in the Republic, 80 percent said they prefer a political settlement in Northern Ireland to a united Ireland - a result unthinkable 10 years ago.

It isn't that there's no sympathy for Catholics in the North, Brian Inglis, a founding member of the British-Irish Association, says. There is - but it is the kind felt for a distant cousin.

Beyond this wide support in Ireland for a political settlement, the Irish government has also indicated that it is prepared to compromise to accommodate as many sides as possible.

Dublin has already suggested it is willing to see changes in two articles of the country's constitution, which lay claim to Northern Ireland, if power from Westminster can be amicably transferred to Northern Ireland.

The Irish government is not the only party to the round-table talks ready to give ground.

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