BRITAIN and the Irish Republican Army (IRA) have reached an apparent deadlock over steps toward peace in Northern Ireland.
Only the tiniest loophole for a peace settlement now appears to exist.
Following three IRA mortar attacks on London's Heathrow airport and the first official response by Sinn Fein (the terrorist organization's political wing) to last December's London-Dublin peace initiative, Prime Minister John Major is coming under pressure from political supporters to abandon the peace effort altogether.
Mr. Major insists that there can be no negotiations with Sinn Fein until the IRA calls off its campaign of violence, but government sources in London say the door remains ajar for possible contacts in the future.
The Downing Street declaration, issued on Dec. 15, offers the IRA a seat at the negotiating table if the group permanently lays down its arms. Sinn Fein leader Gerry Adams has asked for ``clarification'' of the declaration, and observers say he likely is seeking specific terms on the future political arrangements between Britain, Northern Ireland, and the Irish Republic.
Until London provides clarification, Mr. Adams said on March 14, the IRA will continue to attack targets in Northern Ireland and on the British mainland.
Major and Albert Reynolds, his Irish counterpart, say their peace initiative is still on the table, but insist that the IRA's renunciation of violence is a precondition for any future talks.
Meanwhile, Britain is being forced to step up security at Heathrow and other airports in an attempt to forestall more IRA acts of violence. The security effort is threatening to stretch police and Army resources to the limit.
The government also worries that the IRA may switch to other vulnerable targets with the aim of forcing Britain to negotiate a peace agreement on Sinn Fein's own terms.
Major is caught between two competing sets of pressures. Members of the two Ulster Unionist parties, who support his government in the House of Commons, want him to tell Adams that the Downing Street declaration is dead. They cite the mortar attacks on Heathrow as evidence of Sinn Fein's insincerity.
If the Unionists withdrew their support, Major would have great difficulty sustaining a parliamentary majority.
But John Hume, leader of Northern Ireland's mainly Catholic Social Democratic and Labour Party, claims that conditions still exist for reaching a settlement. On March 14, he urged Major to hold talks with Sinn Fein and find out what parts of the declaration it wants clarified.
The prime minister appears to have left open the possibility of future secret contacts along the lines of those last year that prompted London and Dublin to issue the Downing Street declaration.
Government officials note that he has ruled out actual negotiations until there is a permanent cease-fire, but say this does not exclude the possibility of future contacts.
For the time being, however, Major finds himself with little option but to order enhanced security measures at airports, railway stations, and other potential IRA targets.
Sir Ivan Lawrence, chairman of the influential all-party Commons select committee on Home Affairs, says it is vital that foreign travelers using British airports should feel they are being properly protected.
The shells used in the three mortar attacks on Heathrow all failed to explode. A police source said: ``Either their bombmakers are making mistakes, or they deliberately used defused bombs with the aim of showing what they could do if they really tried.''
Security measures at Heathrow and at Gatwick, London's second airport, have been greatly increased.
Major has resisted calls for tanks to be deployed at Heathrow and for road checkpoints to be established around the airport's 10-mile-long perimeter. The last time tanks were seen at Heathrow was during the Gulf war.
Military sources say up to 1,000 troops would be needed to set up checkpoints around the airport perimeter. Searching vehicles, even on a random basis, would cause acute traffic disruption, an airport official said.
With demands increasing for the deployment of more troops in Bosnia-Herzegovina, the government acknowledges that its military resources are already heavily stretched. Ministry of Defense sources say deployment of troops and weapons at Heathrow, Gatwick, and regional airports would have to be at the expense of other military priorities.