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Guns Still Loaded, N. Ireland Talks Ease the Triggers

HANDSHAKES don't produce peace, but they can help.

The first official meeting in 23 years between a British government minister and Sinn Fein, the political wing of the Irish Republican Army, began with a shaking of hands at Stormont Castle in Belfast, Northern Ireland.

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The negotiators, in a historic four-hour meeting Wednesday, appear to have further edged open a widening door to a political settlement in the British-ruled province.

Lasting peace first appeared as a possibility in Northern Ireland some nine months ago, when the IRA announced an unconditional cease-fire, which prompted protestant paramilitary groups to do the same just weeks later.

Both before and since the cease-fire, however, difficult talks have been under way between those who seek to retain and those who want to end British control of Northern Ireland.

Crossing the threshold

Continuing through that widening door now to cement a resolution to Northern Ireland's conflict -- which cost more than 3,000 lives in terrorist attacks -- will be even more laborious.

The major obstacle to progress boils down to two words, as loaded as the weapons they refer to: ''decommission'' and ''demilitarize.'' Between those two terms, a British official said, ''the fate of the peace process will depend.''

Decommissioning, British Minister of State Michael Ancram told a news conference, means the IRA and unionist terrorist groups must hand in their weapons. ''Some decommissioning,'' he said, has to happen soon as ''an indication of serious intent'' on the part of the IRA. Mr. Ancram himself escaped assassination in a 1984 IRA bombing.

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But according to Martin McGuinness, who led the Sinn Fein delegation and is the party's leading strategist, demilitarization is key.

This means the withdrawal of British military from Northern Ireland; repeal of antiterrorist laws; and disbanding Northern Ireland's police force, which Sinn Fein says is dominated by unionists who seek to retain British rule in the province.

What British delegation leader Ancram called a ''businesslike and forthright'' encounter appears to have gone off as well as Prime Minister John Major had hoped. Also, no protests occurred at Stormont Castle during the talks, which is remarkable in the long-troubled province.

Progress by inches

Future progress will depend on ''steady, incremental moves by each side'' rather than any ''sudden dash for agreement,'' says Brendan O'Leary, a Northern Ireland specialist at the London School of Economics.

The British government ''has to remember ... the [pro-British] Ulster Unionists are extremely uneasy,'' he adds.

As if to ram that point home, Peter Robinson of the hard-line, protestant-led Democratic Unionist Party -- which wants to keep British rule -- referred to the meeting as one between ''the treacherous and the treasonous.''

Ancram offered McGuinness three days to pick from next week for a second meeting. But McGuinness, flanked by a negotiating team that included convicted IRA bombers, quickly raised the stakes. Such a meeting, he told Ancram, had to be between Sinn Fein President Gerry Adams and Northern Ireland Secretary Sir Patrick Mayhew.

But beneath the rhetoric, Sinn Fein sources later indicated McGuinness was keen to discuss a document that Ancram handed him on Wednesday, which is believed to outline formal procedures for handing in weapons.

So far British security forces have been slimmed down by about 1,500 men, many roadblocks are gone, and British troop patrols are deliberately low-key.

''Don't look for any grand gesture from London. Look instead for a steady lowering of the security presence in Northern Ireland,'' says a British member of the House of Commons.

''There is need for patience all round,'' he adds. ''Remember, there are republican terrorists who do not belong to the IRA and who are not part of the peace process. So long as talks with Sinn Fein continue, the lunatic fringe is unlikely to come out shooting or bombing.''

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