LONDON — BRITAIN and the Republic of Ireland are at loggerheads after a decision by British Prime Minister John Major to sidestep the findings of an international commission on Northern Ireland and take the peace process on an unexpected tack.
Major called Wednesday for elections to set up a new negotiating body in Northern Ireland, rather than accepting a compromise offered by an international panel, led by US Sen. George Mitchell, on holding talks on the British-ruled province's future. The panel was formed with the approval of London and Dublin to seek a way to disarm Northern Ireland's paramilitary groups and hold talks. John Bruton, the Irish prime minister, called Mr. Major's alternative suggestion ''a divisive move.''
Elections are not favored by Catholics in the province, since Northern Ireland is 60 percent Protestant, and Protestants would likely control any assembly resulting from a vote.
''Holding elections would not command sufficient support and would deflect efforts to pursue the peace process,'' Mr. Bruton said. ''For an elected body to be useful, it would need to have widespread acceptance. As of now, that condition has not been fulfilled.... nationalists have not indicated acceptance.''
John Hume, leader of Northern Ireland's mainly Catholic Social and Democratic Labour Party (SDLP) and a key player in arranging the cease-fire in August 1994, complained that London had ''bowed to pressure from Protestant politicians.'' Mr. Hume and other critics of Major's new approach say elected assemblies in Northern Ireland have always failed. Attempts in 1975 and 1982 to promote elected chambers in which Protestants and Catholics could share power collapsed amid boycotts and recriminations. Debates in an elected Northern Ireland body would only be ''shouting matches'' and would not advance the peace process, Hume warned.
Gerry Adams, president of Sinn Fein, the political wing of the Irish Republican Army, accused Major of ''moving the goalposts'' and allowing Northern Ireland's Protestant majority to ''call the tune.'' Asked whether their parties would boycott elections, Hume and Mr. Adams declined to comment. Only Unionist politicians said London's new idea was wholly acceptable. David Trimble, leader of the official Ulster Unionist Party, which had earlier called for an elected assembly, said it was ''the best way to proceed.'' Major announced his support for holding elections, possibly as early as May of this year, after the international panel, led by US Sen. George Mitchell, released a report saying it was unrealistic for Britain to demand that the IRA disarm before talks on Northern Ireland begin.
Instead of flatly rejecting the report's findings, Major said the elected forum was an idea that the Mitchell commission had considered but had not formally recommended. ''In a democratic system like ours, I cannot see how elections could be regarded by any of the parties as a side issue or a block to progress,'' he told the House of Commons. In a sharp riposte to Hume's fear of ''shouting matches,'' Sir Patrick Mayhew, Britain's Northern Ireland secretary, said: ''A shouting match is better than a shooting match.''