LONDON — BRITAIN will come under heavy pressure to help break the logjam in the Northern Ireland peace process when Prime Minister John Major meets President Clinton at the White House tomorrow.
Amid reports that the Irish Republican Army has already disarmed its own active-service units, Mr. Major's officials, speaking on the eve of his departure for Washington, says the IRA would have to agree to disarm itself before talks could be held with British ministers.
Sources close to the British government concede, however, that Mr. Clinton's position is close to that of the Irish government, which wants Major to be more flexible in his approach to talks with Sinn Fein, the IRA's political wing.
Irish Foreign Minister Dick Spring on Saturday urged Britain and Sinn Fein to settle a dispute over an agenda that is stalling the peace talks. ''I would be hopeful that Sinn Fein would seem to have met all the requirements laid down by London for a meeting with British ministers,'' he said.
A dispute over two crucial words has bogged down secret exchanges between British officials and Sinn Fein for several weeks.
Britain has told Gerry Adams, president of Sinn Fein, that the IRA must agree to ''decommission'' the guns, rocket launchers, and explosives it possesses. This would mean handing them over physically.
Sinn Fein says an agenda for official talks must include discussion of the ''demilitarization'' of Northern Ireland. It insists that all weapons be scrapped and that the British Army eventually return to mainland Britain.
London refuses to countenance a ''demilitarization,'' which would equate the British Army with the IRA.
A report that IRA active-service units have returned their weapons to their headquarters appeared yesterday in The Observer, a respected London paper.
''The arms ... were taken from the units shortly after last August's cease-fire to prevent potential groups of dissidents from wrecking the peace process,'' the newspaper reported, quoting British counter-terrorist sources. It added that IRA volunteers were keeping their handguns to protect themselves from pro-British Loyalist (Protestant) groups.
British officials privately say that Major's talks with Clinton are likely to be difficult. Relations between them have been extremely tense. Last month, Major objected to Clinton's decision to greet Mr. Adams at the White House and was outraged by the welcome extended him. For several days he refused to take calls from the US president.
The issue of the handover of arms is certain to be raised by Clinton, US government sources based in London say.
Clinton's position is thought to be close to that of the Dublin government. He is eager for talks between the Major government and Sinn Fein to begin.
Last month, Michael Ancram, Britain's Northern Ireland minister, met politicians close to Loyalist paramilitary groups. It is thought the decommissioning of Loyalist weapons was discussed at the meeting.
Spring said on Saturday: ''We have too much at stake to allow ourselves to be put off track because of difficulties over an agenda.'' Government sources in Dublin say they are hoping Major and Clinton can achieve a breakthrough this week.
One possibility being mentioned in both London and Dublin is that Clinton will suggest that the US could supervise the handover of weapons by both sides.
Ahead of Major's talks with Clinton, British officials met Sinn Fein representatives for unscheduled talks on Friday in a bid to ease the deadlock over ''decommissioning'' and ''demilitarization.''
The Sinn Fein delegation was led by its senior strategist, Martin McGuinness, who has held several rounds of exploratory talks with British civil servants.