LONDON — AS Britain and the Irish Republic work to restore the peace process for Northern Ireland, the Clinton administration is rethinking its role, concerned that its stance may have partly swayed the Irish Republican Army to end its 17-month cease-fire with a bomb in London Feb. 9.
Officials on both sides of the Atlantic indicate the White House unwittingly may have sent signals that helped lead IRA hard-liners - apparently hoping for American sympathy - to believe that they no longer had much to gain from the peace process.
Accounts by senior American diplomats, administration officials, and Irish diplomats, requesting anonymity, specifically cite Washington's lack of public support for the Jan. 24 report of the so-called Mitchell commission, which advised that the IRA should not have to start giving up its weapons before all-party talks.
British Prime Minister John Major, foreseeing resistance in Northern Ireland's largely Protestant unionist community, largely ignored the advice of the three-man international commission, led by former US Sen. George Mitchell. Mr. Major instead proposed for a new elected body within Northern Ireland to carry forward with talks. His counterproposal, offered the same day Mr. Mitchell released his report, was difficult for many of Northern Ireland's Catholics to take, since they, as a minority, would win less representation than would Protestants in elections.
Officials in all three countries involved in the peace process acknowledge that Washington's support of Britain - rather than the Mitchell advice - may have frustrated long-isolated IRA militants who had envisioned firmer American support. American officials deny any deliberate shift in US policy toward Northern Ireland.
''George Mitchell, while independent, was really our guy,'' said a senior US diplomat in London. ''The subtle differences between US policy and the Mitchell report's conclusions may not have been fully understood by all parties.''
Indeed, even the Mitchell plan would have been difficult for IRA hard-liners to take, since it included the stipulation that no constitutional changes to Northern Ireland's status could be made without the consent of the majority, which is Protestant.
''Gerry Adams [leader of Sinn Fein, the IRA's political wing] and his associates would have tried hard to sell the Mitchell principles,'' said Eamonn McCann, a former civil rights campaigner and an expert on the IRA. ''It would have been a daunting task, and not without personal danger for those undertaking it, but the Adams leadership might just have pulled it off.''
Many IRA militants had been deeply skeptical of the peace process from the start. Mr. Adams has said he only won support for the cease-fire after sketching out a vision of a ''pan-nationalist front'' comprising Dublin, Irish nationalists in Northern Ireland, and for the first time, a sympathetic American president.
As an example, Adams could point to President Clinton's unilateral decision in January 1993 to grant Adams a US visa, weathering London's wrath and the objections of the State Department, the CIA, and the FBI. Adams, quoting the poet Seamus Heaney, argued that ''a space has been created in which hope can grow.'' On that basis, the IRA's council laid down its arms.
The White House, meanwhile, maintains that the US is scrupulously neutral on the Northern Ireland question. And Mr. Clinton has gone out of his way to counter the impression that he favors a peaceful yet nationalist solution to Northern Ireland's troubles.
Protestant leaders like David Trimble, leader of the Ulster Unionist Party, the province's largest, have been in the Oval Office as frequently as Adams or the moderate nationalist John Hume, the Nobel Peace Prize nominee who helped orchestrate the IRA cease-fire in 1994.
A dangerous maze
Yet as Britain's former Northern Ireland Minister Michael Mates said this week, ''Our American friends ... have more leverage on all shades of nationalism, from the Irish government to the IRA, and might use it to help find a way through the maze.''
But the maze is a dangerous place, where a simple turn one way or another can lead to unforeseen consequences. On Feb. 1, within days of Major's proposal, Adams met in Washington with Clinton and national security adviser Anthony Lake.
Reports of what transpired are conflicting, but American diplomats in London and Dublin confirm that Adams presented his most serious warning to that date that the cease-fire might come unraveled. Clinton, according to an American diplomat who handles Northern Ireland affairs, warned Adams not to use a public threat of a return to violence as a bargaining chip.
Adams left that meeting without persuading the White House to pressure London into taking another look at the Mitchell plan. According to Sinn Fein sources, Adams instead was urged by Mr. Lake to accept the British electoral plan.
''It had become pretty clear that Adams couldn't hold the line much longer,'' said a White House aide who was in Clinton's entourage in Ireland last November. ''When the British then rejected the Mitchell plan, and we not only did nothing, but started telling the Adams people they should consider the election proposal, the IRA may have concluded they'd lost their fair hearing in the White House.''
In an effort both to appear evenhanded and lend support to Britain's electoral proposal, the US appears to have upset the foundation - fragile as it may seem in hindsight - on which the cease-fire rested.
The senior US diplomat, explaining the decision to lobby Sinn Fein on behalf of Britain's electoral plan, said before the Feb. 9 bombing that ''Clinton feels his trip to Northern Ireland and the tremendous response he got there gave him a kind of street legitimacy on this issue.... So we began making it clear to Sinn Fein and the Irish government that the White House wouldn't mind, if I can put it that way, if they would study the British proposal.''
A lower profile in the future
The blast in London last week, which killed two people, seems to have jarred the British and Irish governments to work to restore the peace process in Northern Ireland, even if Sinn Fein's participation remains uncertain.
For now, the Clinton administration is likely to keep a low profile and leave it to the conflict's main actors to reestablish dialogue, according to White House and State Department officials. Even if Adams is allowed to return to the US, he is unlikely to talk to Clinton at the White House.