A DRIVE to end the conflict in Northern Ireland is now John Major's top preoccupation.
Officials at 10 Downing Street say the British prime minister has put the peace process at the top of his agenda, despite worries about the economy and his slender parliamentary majority, and is determined to make progress.
Mr. Major is working closely with Albert Reynolds, his counterpart in the Republic of Ireland, to take advantage of what they both say is the best opportunity for a breakthrough in the troubled province for 20 years.
Mr. Reynolds told reporters yesterday he detected a ``new mood from all sides'' in Northern Ireland.
The impetus for this new mood, officials in London and Dublin say, came from a series of shootings and bombings carried out in the past few weeks by terrorists claiming to act for Northern Ireland's Protestant and Catholic communities. The savagery of the campaigns appalled people of both communities.
Major was stimulated to pursue a peace process of his own when it was revealed a month ago that Gerry Adams, president of the radical Roman Catholic Sinn Fein, and John Hume, leader of the nonviolent, mostly Catholic Social Democratic and Labour Party, had been holding secret peace talks. Major objected to the Hume-Adams initiative because he thought it was one-sided and paid insufficient attention to the demands of Ulster's Protestants.
Despite the new mood, the path to a summit meeting between Major and Reynolds early next month was described by a senior British official as ``extremely rocky.'' The communities these two premiers represent - Irish nationalists and Ulster Loyalists - maintain an atmosphere of deep mistrust, the official said, and both sides are ``filling the air with threats and rhetoric.'' Threatened revolt
Major has promised to publish his own peace plan for Northern Ireland soon. But some of his own supporters in the British House of Commons are threatening to oppose the plan if it appears to put undue pressure on Ulster's Protestant majority.
British government sources say that the key to ending the violence is in showing results from its peace initiative with the Irish premier.
But peace moves appeared threatened this weekend by the leaking of an Irish government policy document that suggested that Reynolds wants Britain to accept a united Ireland as a legitimate goal.
Northern Ireland's Protestants generally oppose a united Ireland and insist that their province and its 1.5 million people should remain part of the United Kingdom.
The policy paper, drawn up by civil servants in Dublin, was denounced by Loyalist leaders in Belfast as a betrayal. The Irish prime minister claimed it did not represent official policy, and after a telephone conversation, both he and Major said their two governments were still cooperating in the pursuit of peace.
``We are on parallel tracks,'' Reynolds told reporters.
Sir Patrick Mayhew, Britain's secretary for Northern Ireland affairs, has spoken of a ``discernible yearning for peace.'' This mood appeared to be reflected in a telephone poll carried out last week by two Belfast newspapers - one Protestant, the other Catholic.
The papers received tens of thousands of calls from readers, urging political leaders to try to end the violence.
The momentum toward a settlement is being boosted by an important policy departure by the British prime minister. In a widely reported speech on Nov. 15, Major said Britain was prepared to allow Sinn Fein, the political wing of the Irish Republican Army terrorist group, a seat at peace negotiations if the IRA permanently renounced violence. It was the first time a British prime minister had made such an offer.
Major's comments provoked alarm among Loyalist politicians. The Rev. Ian Paisley, leader of the Democratic Unionist Party, accused him of preparing to ``sell out'' to Dublin. But political sources say Major is ready to withstand such criticism, because he does not believe it represents the true feelings of the mass of Protestants.
Britain's attempts to broker a peace deal have been hampered by political rhetoric flowing from nationalist as well as Loyalist leaders.
Sinn Fein's Mr. Adams greeted Major's Nov. 15 speech with the comment that there had already been secret contacts between the British authorities and the IRA. Contacts with IRA
Downing Street immediately denied the claim, but it was supported by Kevin McNamara, the opposition Labour Party's spokesman on Northern Ireland policy. A senior parliamentary source in London said that it was ``quite likely'' that contacts had been made with the IRA ``through proxies.''
The source speculated that Adams is interested in a negotiated settlement but is handicapped by opposition from influential hard-line figures in Sinn Fein.
Contacts between Major and Reynolds have been focusing on Dublin's claim to sovereignty over Northern Ireland.
The claim is enshrined in articles 2 and 3 of the Irish Republic's Constitution.
The leaked Irish document last week proposed dropping the two articles in return for British acceptance that a united Ireland was a legitimate goal.
Yesterday Reynolds said on British television that he did not think the Irish people would back constitutional changes dropping claims to Ulster. But he insisted that he would ``never support a united Ireland achieved through coercion.'' ``A majority in Ulster must support it first,'' he said.
A measure of the political dangers Major is running as he works closely with Dublin came on Nov. 20 when James Molyneaux, leader of the Official Unionist Party in Northern Ireland, accused diplomats in London and Dublin of ``shamefully exploiting the natural desire for peace.'' ``I have a continuing duty to caution and warn heads of government of the dangers of serious misjudgments based upon flawed advice,'' Mr. Molyneaux said.
Normally a taciturn politician, Molyneaux warned that he might have to take his concerns to the floor of the House of Commons, where the government has a majority of only 17 seats. If he did so, he could count on a sympathetic hearing from several Conservative members of parliament.
In an attempt to soothe Molyneaux's concerns and head off a Conservative back-bench revolt, Major said that he was not prepared to support the Hume-Adams nationalist peace initiative.