THE KEY to an AngloIrish agreement now rests with the mainly Catholic Social Democratic and Labour Party, who represent constitutional nationalism in Northern Ireland.
Since the Anglo-Irish summit at Chequers last November, the "Armstrong-Nally" talks as they are known, have sought to find a solution to the problems of Northern Ireland which does not compromise British sovereignty.
The talks, which resumed again recently after a short summer break, are a genuine attempt by both Governments to bring stability, and attract much-needed investment to the trouble-torn six counties. British Cabinet Secretary, Sir Robert Ai-mstrong, and Secretary to the Irish Government, Mr Dermot Nally, and their officials are now within sight of an agreement.
Present indications are that an Anglo-Irish summit will be held in Dublin during November. Mrs Thatcher and the Irish Prime Minister, Dr Garret FitzGerald, will announce that the British and Irish Governments have reached a small but highly significant agreement concerning Northern Ireland.
There will be a sea of change in the political relationship between London and Dublin and provided the Unionists give it an opportunity to work, the dawn of a new era for the people of Northern Ireland.
However, a senior member of the SDLP told roe a few days ago: "There are still some very substantial difficulties to be resolved before we could get our people to accept an agreement and give it a chance to work."
The SDLP leadership has been fully briefed by Dublin as to the proposed terms of an agreement. Unresolved "associated measures" that still deeply concern them include: The Ulster Defence Regiment, the Judiciary, and the role the Dublin Government will play under new arrangements.
"It doesn't matter what form of words are used, it's 'clout' that matters and that is what we will judge an agreement on," emphasised the senior Party member.
The Party Leader Mr John Hume, the Deputy Leader, Mr Seamus Mallon, Chairman of the Constituency Representatives, Mr Joe Hendron, and Chief Whip, Mr Eddie McGrady, will soon have to decide whether or not to recommend acceptance of the terms. Their views will be put to a private meeting of the Constituency Representatives and the Party Executive.
No vote will be taken but "an overwhelming majority in favour" is required before Mr Hume gives Dr FitzGerald the "green light" that an agreement stands a chance of working in nationalist areas. Dr FitzGerald and Mr Hume are acutely aware that the political vacuum created by failure in the talks would be seized upon by the gunmen, and result in an escalation of violence in Northern Ireland. Nearly 2,500 people have lost their lives since the present troubles began in 1969.
I understand that Mr Hume is inclined to accept the terms now being offered by the British Government. He had hoped for more, but he realises they are about as much as the SDLP could hope to get while Mrs Thatcher is in power.
He will undoubtedly emphasise the clause which, in effect, leaves the agreement open to review should there be a change of either Government.
Mr Peter Barry, the Minister for Foreign Affairs said during a speech in Dublin on August 9: "The Irish Government will make their decision, either one way or the other, when the negotiations are over, and not before. Our decision will be hardheaded, careful and democratic. If necessary we will say 'no'. If possible we will say 'yes'.'
An agreement must stand a change of Government. Dr FitzGerald may well be defeated by Mr Charles Haughey's Fianna Fail Party at the next General Election, due in about two years time. he is particularly vulnerable because of the state of the Irish economy, high taxation and unemployment.
Mr Haughey is unlikely to play the "green card" and make an agreement unworkable. Recent opinion polls, published in Dublin, show him well ahead of Dr FitzGerald's Fine Gael Party and he is unlikely to do or say anything that might jeopardise his chances of winning the General Election.
An area of real difficulty for the SDLP remains the Ulster Defence Regiment. Nationalists regard it as a "Protestant 1/4nilitia" and want it disbanded. Redeployment, the phasing out of part-timers and stringent vetting of new recruits is not sufficient. "Cosmetic changes in the UDR are not enough for us," a senior Party member emphasised.
The SDLP regard the Royal Ulster Cq,nstabulary as "reformable" and Sir John Hermon is considered, by many fair-minded nationalists, to be a good Chief Constable. There is confidence that, under his leadership, specific complaints against the RUC are thoroughly investigated. The SDLP want nationalists
of their choice appointed to the Northern Ireland Police Authority. They want the Authority to be given tough and effective new powers over the RUC, in order to restore confidence in the impartiality of the police in Northern Ireland.
The SDLP wants serious crimes to be tried by a tribunal of three judges. A High Court judge sitting with a judge from the Republic is not sufficient. They also want nationalist judges appointed to the Appeal Court and to the High Court.
The difficulty over whether the Irish Government would have an "executive" or "consultative" role will not occur. The agreement will be worded in broader terms and refer to an "associated role". A joint secretariat will be set up in Belfast and a Dublin Cabinet Minister appointed to it.
The SDLP is concerned that, if the minister and his officials do not have executive power, Dublin will be blamed for events over which it has no control. The SDLP want nationalists appointed to the secretariat to reflect the whole of Northern Ireland, and not just Belfast.
Unionists need not fear this secretariat because under the terms of an agreement, British troops will remain in Northern Ireland and the Secretary of State will continue to run the Province on a day to day basis.
Mr Hume was aware that the former Secretary of State, Douglas Hurd, was pursuing a dual strategy; seeing what progress could be made with Dublin while, at the same time, working to improve law and order within Northern Ireland.
Time will show if Mr Hurd.'s_ successor, Tom King, will continue the same policy, following his appointment last week. Mr Hume knows that once an agreement is seen to be working, EEC and American investment will begin to flow into Northern Ireland and new jobs will be created for people of both communities.
The SDLP know that the talks are the last opportunity to inject lifeblood into the party. Failure to reach an agreement would mark the beginning of the end foi, 70
r the founded on August
2 However, the SDLP has little room for manoeuvre because after so many years of violence, bloodshed and heartbreak, it cannot afford to compromise democratic nationalism by accepting the terms of an wagorrkee.ment it knows will not
Another difficult question facing the SDLP leadership is
the role the Party will play if an agreement is reached. Some of their thinking may be revealed at the Party Conference which Opens in Belfast on November 8.
Looking to the future, Mr Hume indicated, in the House of Commons during July, that the SDLP would be prepared to participate in a new Northern Ireland Assembly. Elections to the Assembly are due in October 1986.
If an agreement was working at the time, indications are that the SDLP would fight elections to a new, probably 85 seat, Assembly. "Rolling devolution" would no longer be an obstacle and they would take their seats.
The British Government has made it clear that it wants to hand back power to the people of Northern Ireland through the Assembly. The SDLP wants a say in the future running of a Province given a new start by an Anglo-Irish agreement.