First remove the offending articles

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I AGREE with Bernard Crick, writing on these pages two days ago, that there is no use in talking about Irish unity 'for a generation'. I would put it at longer than that. But, unlike Professor Crick, I would see some hope for a successful outcome to the 'talks on the future of Northern Ireland', if and when these resume. It all depends on the government in Dublin.

If that government is prepared to move towards the amendment of Articles 2 and 3 of the Irish constitution - the articles that constitute an irredentist claim to Northern Ireland - then the talks can have an agreed outcome. If the Irish government is not prepared to make such a move, there is no point in resuming the talks. Ian Paisley is right about that.

The articles in question can be changed only by referendum. I have no doubt that if the Fianna Fail-Labour coalition government were to recommend amendment, it would be carried by a very large majority. As the other parties in the Dail - Fine Gael, the Progressive Democrats and the Democratic Left - are all favourable to amendment, the opposition would have to be led by Sinn Fein. And Sinn Fein got less than 2 per cent of the vote in the last general election.

In general, opinion in the Irish Republic is more propitious than ever before to change of this kind. There were two strong indications of this in the spring. The first was the very strong revulsion against the IRA that was evident in the wake of the Warrington bombings in March, when 20,000 people demonstrated in Dublin in sympathy with the people of Warrington and the bereaved families. What was most remarkable was that the anti-IRA indignation held up, even in the shadow of another atrocity carried out by loyalist paramilitaries against Catholics, in Castlerock, Northern Ireland immediately after Warrington. Six Catholics were murdered at Castlerock; only one of these was a known member of the IRA.

On past form, we might have expected the indignation over Warrington to be snuffed out by the news of Castlerock. But Castlerock was virtually ignored in the Republic, to the resentful dismay of many Catholics in Northern Ireland. The unspoken message to the Northern Catholics was: 'You are bringing these things on yourselves by your support for the IRA.' And this is entirely new.

The second indication of a change in the political climate came in May with the public reaction to President Mary Robinson's visit to the Queen: the first meeting between the two heads of state since the office of President of Ireland was created in 1937. Mary Robinson expressed the personal hope that she might, before long, be able to receive the Queen in Dublin. The public reaction both to the visit and to the statement about a return visit, was overwhelmingly favourable.

In 1993, the Anglophobia count in the air of the Republic is the lowest it has been in my lifetime. And the count in question is one to which I have had to pay careful attention over the years. It follows that, if the Irish government decides to move in the direction of amending Articles 2 and 3, so making possible the attainment of an agreement with the Unionists, it will have public opinion on its side.

But what kind of agreement is possible? What is possible is agreement on devolved cross-community government in Northern Ireland, with the Anglo-Irish Agreement still in place. This would represent a concession by the Unionists, since they have been insisting on the replacement of the agreement.

The Anglo-Irish Agreement is popular in the Republic because it tends to stabilise relations between Dublin and London. And it is popular with British officialdom because it has the effect of fireproofing Britain against international criticism. So it is going to stay. The Unionists can get nowhere on that one, and I believe they realise this by now.

Latterly, the Unionists, especially Dr Paisley, have been concentrating on Articles 2 and 3. I believe they see a hope there - and it is a reasonable hope - of getting themselves off the hook of their long and futile boycott of the Anglo-Irish Agreement. If they can achieve the symbolic victory of securing the amendment of Articles 2 and 3, they can then claim to have taken the harm out of the agreement. The way will then be open to cross-community devolution.

All now depends on the government in the Republic. Albert Reynolds, the Irish prime minister, has said that Articles 2 and 3 'are not for sale'. But this need not preclude amendment, which is not 'sale'. Statements by Dick Spring, the Foreign Minister, leave the way open. If the government does go for amendment, it need not fear adverse reactions from the voters.

What it does fear, however, is an adverse reaction from John Hume. He is opposed to any change in those articles unless the Unionists pay a heavier price for it than they are ever going to pay: such a price as agreement to joint administration of Northern Ireland by Britain and the Republic (this is known as 'transcending' the Anglo-Irish Agreement). Mr Hume, in fact, doesn't want any agreement with the Unionists. The status quo, with the Anglo-Irish Agreement in place and the Unionists out in the cold, suits him fine. His only real interest in the 'talks on the future of Northern Ireland' is to ensure that blame for their eventual failure shall be seen to rest on the Unionists, not on his SDLP.

But Mr Hume cannot veto amendment of those articles; he won't even have a vote in the required referendum. It is true that his displeasure has been a force in the politics of the Republic in the past, as I have reason to know, but times are changing. People in the Republic detest Gerry Adams and everything he stands for, and Mr Hume has done his reputation no good by his talks with Mr Adams, and especially by the Hume-Adams Joint Declaration.

If Mr Hume were to attack the government over a proposal to amend the constitution, public opinion in the Republic would resent his interference and rally to the government. And although Mr Hume doesn't really want devolved government, the SDLP could not stay out and leave the show to the Unionists.

It's up to Dick Spring. If he comes down in favour of amendment, he can probably bring Albert Reynolds round to that course. He can then safely defy John Hume, and take the talks to a triumphant conclusion. Will he do it? Perhaps. His nomination of Mary Robinson for President was the most imaginative act in recent Irish politics. If he shows the same imagination over constitutional amendment, he will serve all of Ireland well.

(Photograph omitted)