BRITISH policymakers are expressing cautious confidence that Albert Reynolds, the Irish Republic's new prime minister, will support fresh initiatives aimed at resolving the crisis in Northern Ireland.
Mr. Reynolds formally took office as taoiseach (TEE-shock) on Feb. 11 as representatives of Northern Ireland's four "constitutional" parties met with British Prime Minister John Major at his 10 Downing Street residence for talks about the upsurge of violence in the province in the past six weeks, causing 26 sectarian murders.
The Downing Street meeting coincided with the deployment of 600 more British troops in Northern Ireland, bringing the numbers there to more than 19,000, the most at any time since 1979.
A senior official monitoring the Downing Street talks said the replacement of former Prime Minister Charles Haughey by Reynolds created the opportunity for a "fresh start" at two levels: tightening cross-border security between the Irish Republic and Northern Ireland; and raising the prospects of forging closer political contacts between the Protestant and Catholic communities.
The official's views were echoed by Seamus Mallon, deputy leader of the mainly Catholic Social Democratic and Liberal Party (SDLP), one of the parties invited to the British prime minister's London residence.
The others were the two Ulster Unionist parties and the small Alliance Party.
In the Downing Street talks the Unionists called for more security forces to be deployed and argued a case for selective detention without trial of suspected terrorists, a policy Mr. Major has resisted.
The SDLP took a more political line. "There is a new opportunity to tackle the political and economic issues that underlie the sectarian divide," Mr. Mallon said.
"There is no security problem in isolation. A political remedy is required," he added.
He added that Reynolds was respected for his moderation and patience, and was aware that something must be done to halt the spiral of violence in the north.
Hopes that Reynolds will be able to adopt a constructive line over Northern Ireland rest partly on the warm working relationship established between him and Major after 1988 when both held the post of finance minister in their respective governments. Pragmatic politicians
A British official described the two prime ministers as "alike in their pragmatic approach to political questions." They were both comparatively free of "historical baggage" on the Northern Ireland question.
The official went on to contrast Reynolds's style with that of Mr. Haughey whom he described as "more theatrical" and "widely identified with the republican cause."
In his first news conference after being elected taoiseach Reynolds gave journalists a taste of his understated style.
Unlike Haughey, he faced the news media without a retinue of political supporters in attendance. More contacts
On contacts between the two parts of Ireland, he said he wanted to create more cross-border projects.
Analysts interpreted this to mean that he supported better border security, but also favored confidence-building measures involving people from either side of the north-south frontier.
Reynolds surprised British officials with the vehemence of his condemnation of terrorism in Northern Ireland.
He told the news conference that they were in the grip of "dwarfed and twisted patriotism which sees inflicted death as an instrument of change."
In British government circles it was noted that Haughey had never used such language.
Reynolds is leader of Fianna Fail, a party which was established to gain Ireland's independence from London and to achieve Irish reunification. Anglo-Irish agreement
London officials recalled that the ousted taoiseach once stood trial on a gun-running charge (he was found not guilty) and had attacked the 1985 Anglo-Irish agreement, which Reynolds supports.
According to senior Conservative Party sources in London, Major hopes that when Reynolds has settled into his new job he will be able to address a major issue that has stood in the way of progress on the Northern Ireland question: two clauses in the Irish Republic's Constitution laying territorial claim to Northern Ireland.
The sources say that if the clauses could be dropped, or their language muted, that would mollify Ulster Unionists who fear that Dublin's long-term aim is still a southern takeover of Northern Ireland.
Mallon, who sits in the Westminster Parliament, sees more immediate cause for hope in Reynolds's readiness to consider Northern Ireland in a broad European context.
Reynolds told his first news conference that he hoped the 12-nation European Community could be involved in a new political initiative.
Referring to the European Community's common market of 1992, he continued: "The economic borders of the EC will be gone next year, so we have to find a structure to allow the political borders to go as well." Broader troubles
Mallon interpreted the new taoiseach's comment as meaning that he saw the Northern Ireland crisis as "more than a matter to be resolved between London and Dublin."
"If Ulster's troubles can be tackled in the context of European politics, the sectarian divide is more likely to be seen for what it is, a symptom of much deeper political and economic problems," Mallon said.