`WHEN you get a dispute where the extreme views on either side are deeply entrenched, if you're going to get anywhere, a secret negotiation is essential.''
Britain's former ambassador to the United Nations, Sir Anthony Parsons, made this comment in another context: the agreement between the Palestine Liberation Organization and Israel in September. Those words bear repeating as British Prime Minister John Major finds himself embroiled in a controversy surrounding his government's contacts with the Irish Republican Army, through its political wing, Sinn Fein.
Reactions to such contacts are touchy enough, given the entrenched suspicions on Northern Ireland's future. Unionists, who want Northern Ireland to remain part of the United Kingdom instead of joining Ireland, worry that the British government will force an unacceptable settlement on them, despite its pledge to come up with a pact acceptable to Northern Ireland's Protestant majority.
The lack of trust among many Unionists has intensified following this week's reports of back-door talks, which rely on trust if they are to find support later. One reason: When rumors of contacts began circulating recently, Major said face-to-face talks with the IRA would turn his stomach - which Sinn Fein leader Gerry Adams said helped prompt him to make the contacts public.
The precise nature of the contacts are still being clarified. The British government indicated that its basic stand remained unchanged: No place in broader talks for Sinn Fein or the IRA until they renounce violence.
The Northern Ireland Secretary Sir Patrick Mayhew told Parliament yesterday that contacts had reached a point where the government suggested a January 1994 meeting to hold an ``exploratory dialogue.'' The government said that its contacts were a response to an overture from the IRA in February asking for advice on how to end the conflict. Adams says that contacts have occurred since 1990, many of them face to face.
On Friday, Major and Ireland's Prime Minister Albert Reynolds are scheduled to meet. They reportedly have developed a communique designed to restore some level of confidence in their approach to18 Northern Ireland. In the meantime, it would be unfortunate if a potentially useful back-door has been permanently shut.