SENIOR Protestant churchmen in Northern Ireland are signaling their willingness to hold direct talks with the Irish Republican Army (IRA) aimed at bringing an end to terrorism in the troubled province.
They have already had discussions with Protestant terrorist groups, it was disclosed Feb. 29. These talks marked the first time in 17 years that direct contacts had been opened between Ireland's churches and terrorists.
The Protestant initiative is the boldest of a series of carefully coordinated moves by clergy from the four main churches in Northern Ireland - Presbyterians, Methodists, Anglicans, and Roman Catholics. Some of the contacts are low-level, but they are continuing with the tacit blessing of the leaders of the four churches.
Jack Weir and Godfrey Brown, both former moderators of the Presbyterian Church in Ireland, described the churches' moves as a "useful complement" to British government determination to relaunch peace talks involving Northern Ireland's four constitutional parties before Britain's general election, expected on April 9.
The four-party talks - a resumption of contacts suspended last July - are thought by British government sources likely to start the second week in March. They are seen as a way of preparing the ground for more substantive talks after the general election.
On March 2 Cardinal Cahal Daly, the Catholic primate of Ireland, denied press reports that his church was involved in a direct peace initiative, but hinted that contacts between Catholic priests and IRA members were taking place.
"I would be surprised if there were not contacts going on because of the tremendous desire for peace there is in all sections of the community," he said in a radio interview.
A day earlier it was disclosed that on Feb. 14 Dr. Weir and Dr. Brown had secretly met representatives of the Loyalist (Protestant) Ulster Defence Association in Belfast in an attempt to persuade its banned military wing - the Ulster Freedom Fighters - to halt the upsurge of bloodshed that has resulted in 30 deaths this year.
Weir and Brown said the UDA meeting was pastoral and arranged on their own initiative. "Risks need to be taken if peace is to be possible," Weir said.
He and Brown were prepared to meet republicans, so long as the meeting was not "turned into a publicity stunt."
Weir said: "I would not be seeking some compromise arrangement with them. I would be seeking to present the challenge of what I believe to be our Christian faith - speaking to consciences. We are going down hill, deeper and deeper into a pit. We must crawl out of that pit."
Responding to Weir's comments, Martin McGuinness, a leading figure in Sinn Fein, the IRA's political wing, said such talks would be "helpful."
He added: "Sinn Fein has no fears about speaking with individuals or groups seriously searching for an honorable, honest, and just road to lasting peace."
The churchmen's initiative came to light amid signs of a new resolve in London, Dublin, and Belfast to accelerate efforts to get the peace process moving.
* On Feb. 11, Britain's Prime Minister John Major met with leaders of Northern Ireland's constitutional parties.
* Feb. 25, he held talks with Albert Reynolds, his newly elected Irish counterpart.
* On Feb. 29, leaders of Northern Ireland's constitutional parties unexpectedly held a meeting in Belfast.
* On March 2, Peter Brooke, Britain's Northern Ireland secretary, met the leaders and announced that he hoped to chair four-party talks next week, following a House of Commons debate on Northern Ireland on March 5 and a meeting of the Anglo-Irish conference on March 6.
A Protestant church source said the latest moves could have a more ambitious aim. "The current approaches are aimed at stimulating a dialogue which the politicians could then enter," the source said.
The official position of the churches in Northern Ireland is that they insist violence must end before talks between church leaders and Protestant and Catholic paramilitary groups can take place.
Last August Gerry Adams, the Sinn Fein president, wrote to the leaders of Ireland's four main churches, suggesting talks. They replied that a meeting was impossible until he renounced terrorist violence.
The Catholic Church has been under pressure from one of Northern Ireland's political leaders to open direct negotiations with the IRA.
On March 1, John Hume, leader of the mainly Catholic Social Democratic and Liberal Party, said in a TV broadcast that he welcomed the Presbyterian church's initiative and appealed to Cardinal Daly to authorize a similar move.