PROGRESS toward peace in Northern Ireland now depends heavily on the willingness of Protestant paramilitary groups to lay down their arms. But British Prime Minister John Major is having to battle hard to persuade them to match the Irish Republican Army's Aug. 31 unilateral cease-fire.
Prime obstacles along the path to a bilateral cessation of hostilities are two outlawed, loyalist, Protestant paramilitary groups: the Ulster Volunteer Force (UVF) and the Ulster Freedom Fighters (UFF). Both greeted the IRA cease-fire announcement with declarations that their own campaigns of violence would continue. (Briefing on Northern Ireland, Page 14.)
The day after Gerry Adams, president of Sinn Fein (the IRA's political wing), endorsed the cease-fire, a UFF unit shot and killed a Catholic man. Two days later a bomb attack, thought to be the work of the UVF, was carried out in front of Sinn Fein's offices in Belfast.
Mr. Adams said after both incidents that the IRA would not abandon its cease-fire. But the British government is known to be worried that both the UVF and UFF are better armed than ever before.
Of the two groups, British Army sources say, the UVF is more moderate than the UFF, which has a younger, more radical membership. That neither the UVF nor the UFF admit to accepting any guidance from the two Unionist political parties intensifies concern.
In attempts to gain leverage over loyalist groups, British officials say Mr. Major will concentrate on political persuasion. The prime minister says he is not in contact with the UFF or the UVF, but is working with the two main Protestant political parties: the official, relatively moderate, Ulster Unionist Party (UUP) and the more extreme Democratic Unionist Party (DUP).
The Rev. Ian Paisley, a fiery orator who heads the DUP, immediately condemned the IRA cease-fire when it was announced.
Mr. Paisley met Major at 10 Downing Street on Sept. 6 in what government sources said was a difficult atmosphere. He pressed Major for details of a proposed framework agreement to be announced by London and Dublin in coming weeks. The agreement would set the terms for future exchanges between Britain, Sinn Fein, and the Irish government. Paisley said in advance of his meeting with Major that he expected the framework agreement to be ``a sellout to the IRA.''
The DUP leader also called for a referendum of the people of Northern Ireland, claiming that a huge majority would insist on the province remaining part of the United Kingdom.
The UUP, for its part, has more supporters in Northern Ireland than the DUP, but Paisley's individual popularity exceeds that of UUP leader James Molyneaux.
As British authorities search for levers to persuade loyalists to put their faith in the peace process, they face profound skepticism among many Northern Ireland Protestants.
Over the Sept. 3 to 4 weekend, in an attempt to convince the Protestant community that peace was possible, Major called on Sinn Fein and the IRA to state categorically that their cease- fire was permanent. British officials said the province's Protestant leaders needed the word ``permanent'' to be used before they could prevail on their own community's paramilitaries to abandon the struggle.
Adams refused to use the word ``permanent,'' but Martin McGuinness, a senior Sinn Fein figure, said the IRA cease-fire would continue ``in all circumstances.''
John Hume, leader of the moderately nationalist Social Democratic and Labour Party and a prime mover last year in advancing the Northern Ireland peace process, has called on loyalist gunmen to lay down their arms.
``If they refuse to do so,'' he said on Sept. 5, ``we shall witness a strange spectacle: loyalist paramilitaries, who want British troops to stay in the province, confronting them in our streets. Such a situation would be difficult for the people of Britain to understand.''
Some British officials hope younger DUP members will be more readily persuaded to back a bilateral cease-fire.
Peter Robinson, the party's deputy leader, has come close to saying loyalist paramilitaries should declare a cease-fire. In a television interview on Sept. 5, he said this was conceivable if it was ``proved conclusively'' that the IRA's campaign of violence had ended. He did not say what form the proof would have to take.
While Major has attempted to pressure loyalist paramilitaries to seek peace, Irish Prime Minister Albert Reynolds has stated publicly that the terms of the IRA's cease-fire are acceptable to his government.
This stance annoys British officials, who indicated privately on Sept. 6 the two governments risked falling out of step.
The British government is opposed also to the Clinton administration granting Adams and Mr. McGuinness visas to visit the United States later this year. Adams traveled to the US in February amid much publicity, despite British government opposition to a visit being granted.