LONDON — FOR decades, the terrorists of the Irish Republican Army have claimed to be the true voice of the Irish people. But their current isolation was evident in the Irish village of Gorey in Ireland on Wednesday.
On the day the British and Irish premiers launched a new peace plan for Northern Ireland, the parents of Edward O'Brien, an IRA member killed 10 days earlier by a bomb he was carrying in London, buried their son.
They had pleaded to the IRA to stay away, but four members of the organization turned up for the funeral anyway. They found themselves alone and uncomfortable among hundreds of people who were offering sympathy to Miley and Margo, O'Brien's parents. And they had to listen to a homily denouncing ''the evil world of terrorism'' and ''the godfathers of violence.''
At previous funerals of IRA activists, members of the organization have paraded in uniforms and carried weapons, and it is unusual for parents of an IRA member killed in action to try to ban other members from the funeral.
The scene was a compelling metaphor for what British Prime Minister John Major and John Bruton, his Irish counterpart, are trying to achieve with their plan, in which all-party talks would start by June 10 and would be preceded by elections.
Mr. Major and Mr. Bruton stressed the plan was aimed to push the IRA into a corner, and to make a final choice between peace and a war that is increasingly isolating them. Their political wing, Sinn Fein, will be excluded from talks on Northern Ireland's future unless the IRA restores the truce it broke Feb. 9.
Afraid of commitment
Major and Bruton wanted to contrast what Major called ''the politics of the bomb and the bullet,'' which brought violence and misery, with the attractions of constitutional government.
Yet it is uncertain Sinn Fein can persuade the IRA to restore the cease-fire. It was revealed yesterday that Sinn Fein leader Gerry Adams and John Hume, leader of the moderate Social Democratic and Labour Party (SDLP), had held talks on Wednesday night with IRA representatives.
A Sinn Fein statement said there had been ''a detailed and frank exchange of views'' at the meeting, but did not mention a resumption of the IRA cease-fire.
Mr. Adams demanded that Sinn Fein be included in preliminary talks on the peace process, due to start Monday. Mr. Hume said he realized from the meeting ''the distrust that has developed during the cease-fire'' and urged all-party talks without preconditions.
Major is already facing difficulties from members of his own party. David Wilshire, a pro-unionist Conservative member of Parliament, greeted the Anglo-Irish communique with the comment: ''This is another Munich.''
Likening the proposed peace plan to Britain's appeasement of Adolf Hitler, Mr. Wilshire said that Major had compromised by dropping Britain's former demand that talks with Sinn Fein could start before the IRA begins giving up its weapons.
David Trimble, leader of the Ulster Unionist Party (UUP), which favors maintaining British rule in Northern Ireland, also took a hard line. He said he would not meet with Sinn Fein in all-party talks until the IRA begins giving up its weapons.
But Brendan O'Leary, a leading analyst of Irish politics, notes that Mr. Trimble's UUP could become isolated. It is the largest political party in Northern Ireland, but now, Mr. O'Leary says an ''unlikely alliance'' has formed between two smaller parties that are normally in opposition: the Democratic Unionist Party, which like the UUP wants to keep Northern Ireland British but is more hard-line, and Hume's SDLP, which favors peaceful unification with Ireland. These two parties agree on the elections format because it would likely increase representation for Northern Ireland's smaller parties.
''This could be important in the context of pushing ahead with the peace process,'' O'Leary says.
In reply to the ''Munich'' barb, Major told the House of Commons: ''I could stay in a trench and set up 100 good reasons for doing nothing.'' But if he did so, in 50 years his successors ''would be standing in the same trench.''