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A N. Ireland Peace Plan In Sight, out of Reach

Talks resumed March 23, with a May deadline looming. British leader says agreement is 'agonizingly close.'

Parties to the Northern Ireland conflict have resumed their examination of a tantalizingly simple - but hotly contentious - peace formula.

Lord Alderdice, leader of the province's small but respected nonsectarian Alliance Party, calls it "a north-south, east-west approach" to ending nearly three decades of terrorist violence.

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The north-south part of the plan envisages close cooperation between Northern Ireland and Ireland to the south on a wide range of issues. The east-west element, says Alderdice, would be the signing of "a new treaty between Britain and the Irish Republic... to enable us all to tackle problems common to our two islands."

As the parties returned to Belfast for a new round of talks on March 23, a sense of escalating urgency was apparent. The London and Dublin governments have set a May 31 deadline for reaching a settlement and have promised referendums in Northern Ireland and Ireland soon afterward.

On the surface, the old antagonisms appeared present as the talks resumed. Gerry Adams, president of Sinn Fein, the political wing of the Irish Republican Army, was back at the table following a brief suspension after police in Northern Ireland blamed the IRA for two killings in February. Mr. Adams returned to accuse pro-British Ulster Unionist Party (UUP) negotiators of "obstructing attempts to make progress."

Ulster Unionist leader David Trimble declared he would refuse to meet Adams or his lieutenants until the IRA renounces violence and repeated calls for Sinn Fein to be excluded from the talks until such a promise is given.

Still, Britain's Northern Ireland Secretary Mo Mowlam said she detected "hopeful signs that progress can be made." Her officials confirmed that the British and Irish governments would press Adams and Mr. Trimble to endorse the north-south, east-west concept. Also needed would be approval for power-sharing in an elected Northern Ireland assembly between the province's Protestant majority and Catholic minority, and human rights safeguards for both communities.

British Prime Minister Tony Blair has said an agreement is "agonizingly close." During last week's St. Patrick's Day celebrations in the United States, attended by many Northern Ireland political leaders, President Clinton agreed with the Blair assessment.

Alderdice, whose party wins nearly as many votes in local elections as Sinn Fein, says the north-south component of the peace plan is "the most difficult element for Mr. Trimble to accept." The UUP leader is under pressure from London and Dublin to agree to the need for cross-border bodies with executive powers in such fields as economic development, education, tourism, and environmental protection. Trimble has said such arrangements should be consultative only.

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Analysts generally agree that Trimble is having to satisfy hard-line UUP members who resist any suggestion of cross-border institutions that would allow Dublin a say in governing Northern Ireland.

On the other hand, the prospect of early referendums means that Trimble and his supporters must take account of a deep desire among voters in both parts of Ireland for a permanent end to violence. Following last week's flurry of meetings in the US, it emerged that Mr. Blair and Mr. Clinton intend to make what one British source called "a division of labor" in their attempts to push the peace process forward.

THE source said the prime minister would "make much of the running in urging Mr. Trimble and other Unionists to accept a compromise." Clinton would concentrate on "bringing Sinn Fein on board."

Alderdice also thinks the US leader may be able to "play a persuasive role when referendums are held in the north and south.

"The president has not so far committed himself to a visit in May, but his political skills could well prove decisive when the people of Ireland are asked to vote on a peace plan," he says.

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