SINN FEIN, the political wing of the Irish Republican Army (IRA), has agreed on a formula with one of Northern Ireland's main constitutional parties for putting an end to terrorism in the war-torn province.
The plan marks the first time Sinn Fein and the Social Democratic and Liberal Party (SDLP) have shared common ground on how to achieve a peace accord in Northern Ireland.
Officials in London and Dublin called the move an important breakthrough in attempts to halt the violence in Ulster. But the development could create problems for British Prime Minister John Major, whose narrow parliamentary majority could be threatened if he backs the accord.
Sinn Fein and the mainly Roman Catholic SDLP have sent a progress report on their peace talks to government authorities in Dublin. British officials expect details this week.
The report, which is the outcome of six months of secret negotiations between Gerry Adams, president of Sinn Fein, and John Hume, leader of the SDLP, has sparked anger among Northern Ireland's Protestant politicians.
The Rev. Ian Paisley, leader of the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP), said a pact among Sinn Fein, the IRA, and the SDLP threatened to ``result in the destruction of Northern Ireland.'' He promised to oppose such a development.
Mr. Hume, however, appealed to the Protestant side to show patience and restraint. ``The peace process must involve all parties and must be considered by both the British and Irish governments.''
POLITICAL sources close to Hume say the peace formula involves a cessation of terrorism by the IRA in return for a scaling down of the number of British troops in Northern Ireland and a review of cases of IRA prisoners held in British jails. The sources said there were indications that Mr. Adams might be prepared to modify his long-standing call for a united Ireland.
An SDLP source in Belfast, the Northern Ireland capital, said that in his talks with Hume, Adams had acted with the full backing of the entire republican movement, including the IRA.
Sir Patrick Mayhew, British secretary of state for Northern Ireland, said that he would ``consider carefully'' any matters Dublin wished to raise as a result of the talks. He emphasized that the British government would not talk with the IRA until it had publicly renounced terrorism.
The Sinn Fein-SDLP accord has emerged at a time of escalating violence in Northern Ireland. Most of the attacks in recent weeks have been launched by the Ulster Freedom Fighters and other Protestant paramilitary organizations. British official sources say supporters of the Unionist cause apparently got wind of the secret talks soon after they began last April.
Reverend Paisley's DUP and the larger Ulster Unionist Party (UUP), led by James Molyneaux, are likely to be embarrassed by the agreement between Adams and Hume.
If Sinn Fein and the SDLP can lend credibility to their attempts to persuade the IRA to abandon terrorism, Unionist politicians will find themselves under pressure to restrain Protestant paramilitary groups.
Mr. Major may find himself in an embarrassing position, too.
Last July he accepted the support of nine UUP Members of Parliament in pushing the Maastricht Treaty through the House of Commons. At that time, the prime minister insisted that he had made no deals with Mr. Molyneaux. But with a narrow Commons majority, and with some Conservative MPs hostile to his leadership, he may have to continue to rely on UUP support.
If London looks favorably on what Adams and Hume have achieved, Unionist MPs in the Commons may attempt to block progress on a Northern Ireland peace deal by threatening to withhold support from the Major government.