THE days are dwindling down, but officials at Westminster are still hopeful of getting a third ``working meeting'' on Northern Ireland set up between British Prime Minister John Major and his Irish counterpart, Albert Reynolds, before Christmas.
Relations between the two countries have been strained by the rather bumbling way in which secret British contacts with the illegal Irish Republican Army have come to light. And yet the criticism of those contacts, within the British Isles and from abroad, has been more over the ``how'' than the ``what.'' This would seem to reflect international opinion that the time has come for the adversaries to talk, somehow. As Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin has noted in another context, you negotiate with your enemies, not with your friends.
Leaders of Sinn Fein, the IRA's political wing, have been given an understanding by both the British and the Irish that if they can deliver a permanent cessation of violence, they will have a place at the table where a political settlement for Northern Ireland would be negotiated. The IRA has been giving oblique signals for some time now: This stage of the conflict is over (whatever that means). And the message from the British-IRA contacts seems to be that the IRA will give the British a cessation of violence: for a price.
That price is likely to be some form of acknowledgment of the legitimacy of the goal of a united Ireland from the British, who for some time now have declared themselves ``neutral'' on the issue of whether Northern Ireland remains within the United Kingdom.
So the question becomes, What formulation can be given to Irish national aspirations that will not scare the (mostly Protestant) unionists into violence?
Articles Two and Three of the Irish Constitution, which in effect lay claim to all of Ireland, are often cited by unionists and others as the expressions of the kind of irredentism that makes them distrustful of Dublin. No wonder we cling to the tie with Britain, they say; you just want to swallow us up, religion and cultural tradition and all.
From Dublin one hears a counter view: Articles Two and Three are not about territorial expansion; they are about asserting a right to Irish identity which (mostly Catholic) nationalists in the North feel is denied them. We will modify or repeal the two articles - and in any case we would know better than to attempt annexation of the six counties of the North by anything other than consent of the majority. But there does need to be some articulation of Irish national identity, for moderate constitutional nationalists as well as for Sinn Fein.
One could hope that with a cessation of violence, a centrist consensus could develop that would straddle the intercommunal divide and marginalize the terrorists on both extremes. There are positive signs of this.
The danger, though, is that unionist violence might simply replace nationalist violence if Sinn Fein finds a place at the table but unionists feel they are being sold out by the British.
Unionists will have some rethinking to do as events unfold. Where do they, who have thought of themselves as culturally British, fit in if the British government is ``neutral'' on whether Northern Ireland remains part of Britain? Yet the right settlement of the issue will have to be right for both communities.