LONDON — AS President Clinton visits Northern Ireland today, he'll be able to bask in the glow of a breakthrough in peace talks for that troubled province.
His chance to talk of such good news nearly didn't happen. But just hours before the president arrived in London, Prime Minister John Major and his Irish counterpart, John Bruton, struck a deal to agreed that peace talks should begin next February.
They also decided that a three-member international commission chaired by former United States Sen. George Mitchell will be set up to discuss how Northern Ireland's paramilitary groups should disarm.
The arrangement is being described by the two governments as a ''twin-track process.''
The breakthrough, hailed by Mr. Clinton as an example of ''vision, courage, and leadership for peace,'' came after months of wrangling about the preconditions for substantive talks.
The compromise - struck by Messrs. Major and Bruton at a hastily arranged summit only eight hours before the presidential jet touched down in London - is a fragile one. It has been greeted with a mixture of hostility and guarded optimism by parties to the Northern Ireland conflict.
John Hume, leader of the Social and Democratic Labour Party, which favors union with Ireland, said it was ''the development all peace-lovers have been waiting for.'' David Trimble, leader of the official Unionist Party, which advocates continued union with Britain, said the agreement did not solve the issue of disarming the Irish Republican Army. He said he would not speak to the IRA or Sinn Fein ''until the IRA hands in its weapons.''
Ian Paisley, leader of the smaller Democratic Unionist Party, attacked the Major-Bruton communique as ''an exercise in semantics designed to please President Clinton.''
Gerry Adams, leader of Sinn Fein, the political arm of the IRA, struck a similar note. ''If we cannot have all-party talks, we cannot have a peace settlement. And if we cannot have a peace settlement, we cannot have peace,'' Mr. Adams said in Belfast. He added: ''Clearly what we got last night was a fudge.''
Under the deal, which seemed likely to elude Major and Bruton right up to the last minute and was reached only after two lengthy telephone calls between them on Tuesday, the international commission will advise London and Dublin on how the IRA can be disarmed.
At the same time, Sinn Fein will be invited to take part in talks to set the agenda for full-scale negotiations on the future of Northern Ireland by next February.
It was clear, however, from remarks made by Major and Bruton at their London summit late on Tuesday night, that they still disagreed sharply on a key element in the disarmament process.
Major said he could see no way forward other than the ''physical decommissioning'' of IRA arms before the planned talks. Bruton, at a joint news conference, said: ''The physical gesture of decommissioning, though desirable, is not an attainable gesture.''
Earlier summits between the two leaders have had to be postponed because of Sinn Fein objections to the British demand that IRA arms should be handed in ahead of full talks. It was not clear why Sinn Fein had lifted its objections on the eve of Clinton's arrival in London.
From the British capital, the president planned to travel to the Northern Ireland capital, Belfast, and to Dublin, capital of the Irish Republic. Britain and Ireland are hoping that the Mitchell commission will be able to persuade the IRA and Protestant paramilitary groups to lay down arms. The commission, however, will have no executive power. It will be up to the British and Irish governments to make a final decision.
Officials of both governments conceded that Clinton's imminent arrival had put pressure on Major and Bruton to break the logjam that has frustrated new peace measures for several months.
In the end, both sides made compromises in order to greet Clinton with a constructive package.
Major agreed to set a target date for the beginning of full peace talks. Bruton, despite IRA pressure to the contrary, accepted that there was a clear distinction between arms held by paramilitary groups and weapons deployed by Britain's security forces.
Mr. Adams has argued the IRA should not be required to hand in its weapons unless Britain agreed to remove its weapons and equipment from Northern Ireland.
Describing the task ahead, Major said ''Everyone will need courage to take risks in the search for peace, and I hope they will be prepared to do so.''
There appeared to be an unspoken hope in London and Dublin that so long as the peace process moves forward, even if slowly, the current cease-fire will solidify.
This perception was reflected in remarks by Albert Reynolds, the former Irish prime minister, who along with Major had helped to produce the cease-fire in August and September last year.
''It doesn't much matter how long the talks take,'' Reynolds told British TV in a interview, ''so long as there is no more violence.