BELFAST — The British government has moved hastily to reassure the people of Britain and Northern Ireland that there has been no radical change in its policy against terrorism in the province. A political row erupted in Belfast and London this week following controversial remarks by Peter Brooke, the recently appointed British secretary of state, who was briefing journalists to mark his 100 days in one of the hottest seats in British politics.
Mr. Brooke hinted that the government might be prepared to talk to members of Sinn Fein, the political wing of the illegal Irish Republic Army, provided the IRA desisted from acts of violence. Brooke admitted that neither the IRA nor the British Army could win a military campaign in Northern Ireland.
His remarks are thought to have dismayed his Cabinet colleagues in London and to have surprised a number of political leaders in Dublin. The British and Irish governments have taken strong antiterrorism measures.
The reaction from Ulster Unionists, who favor a retention of the link with Britain, was swift. The Rev. Ian Paisley, leader of the Democratic Unionists, said that any suggestion of talks with Sinn Fein was ``treachery and surrender,'' and an insult to the dead of the last 20 years of violence.
Significantly, however, representatives of the mainly Roman Catholic Social Democratic Labour Party, which advocates Irish unity by peaceful means, took a different line. Its leader, John Hume, said that Brooke was a highly intelligent man and that his remarks were merely common sense. He said that Sinn Fein should be brought into the political dialogue, provided it ends its campaign of violence.
``[Brooke's] comments, however distasteful they may be to some people and however unlikely the scenario he paints, have the virtue of openness and honesty - qualities not always so present in politics,'' added John Alderice, leader of the middle- of-the-road Alliance Party.