THE British government's drive to secure peace in Northern Ireland has indirectly put heavy pressure on one of its senior ministers to resign.
Home Secretary Michael Howard, who bears responsibility for the nation's prisons, has been asked to explain why members of the Irish Republican Army (IRA) being held on terrorist offenses were allowed to smuggle guns and explosives into a top-security jail in England earlier this month.
Senior Protestant politicians in Northern Ireland have claimed that the prisoners were put on a ``soft regime'' as part of the British government's attempts to persuade the IRA to abandon violence permanently and accept a political settlement.
Prison officers in England say the decision meant that terrorists were given special privileges, which resulted in a breakout from Whitemoor jail by five IRA inmates armed with pistols on Sept. 9. The men shot and wounded a guard before being recaptured.
Two weeks later, two pounds of Semtex, an explosive widely used in IRA attacks, were found inside the same prison. Amid the resulting publicity, it emerged that terrorists held under supposedly high-security conditions had been able to demand that guards bring them meals from outside and accord them other privileges.
Conditions in Whitemoor were so sloppy that Judge Stephen Tumim, Britain's inspector of prisons, told Mr. Howard earlier this year that the secure unit at the jail was ``out of control.''
John Bartell, chairman of the Prison Officers Association, has recently accused the home secretary of allowing serious security breaches and, by permitting IRA terrorists to ``rule the roost'' while inside, putting his men in danger.
Mr. Bartell says Howard has allowed ``unchecked criminality'' and ``a daily breakdown in control'' in many of the nation's jails and has demanded that he resign. Howard and other ministers deny any connection between the relaxation of conditions inside Whitemoor and the government's pursuit of a political settlement in Northern Ireland.
Suspicions of a link between politics and relaxed prison rules were heightened early in September when, days after the IRA announced its Aug. 31 cease-fire, a group of its terrorists were moved from a prison in England to one in Belfast. The IRA has long demanded such transfers because it wants prisoners to be closer to their families.
One of the men involved had been responsible for a bomb attack that came close to killing former Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher in the early 1980s.
Peter Robinson, deputy leader of Northern Ireland's Democratic Unionist Party, bitterly criticized the Whitemoor breakout and reports of the ``soft'' conditions inside the prison. ``This shows that the IRA cease-fire is a sham,'' he said.
Howard has ordered a special investigation of the Whitemoor breakout and of charges that weapons and explosives were allowed into the prison because he had ordered that people visiting IRA prisoners need not be searched.
Since becoming Home Secretary last year, he has attempted to foster the image of a tough law-and-order minister. Last October, at the ruling Conservative Party's annual conference, he pledged to implement 27 measures aimed at cracking down on crime. So far only one of the measures has been put into full effect. The rest have either been dropped or delayed because of political opposition in Parliament, much of it from Conservative Party supporters in the upper house, the House of Lords.
At this year's party conference in two weeks' time, Howard will face 215 motions from delegates asking why the promised crackdown has not yet happened.
Howard says he will not resign, and Prime Minister John Major has rallied to his support. But some of the home secretary's Cabinet colleagues have privately shown signs of embarrassment that the government was apparently so keen to get a settlement in Northern Ireland that it permitted lax prison conditions for convicted terrorists.
Senior government officials say the results of the Whitemoor inquiry are likely to include an order for body searches of people visiting IRA prisoners and a drastic cut in inmates' privileges. The officials also concede that the inquiry will probably confirm that rules in the prison's secure unit were not followed.
Regardless of Howard's political future, the government faces a dilemma in its policy toward IRA prisoners. If the government continues to accord special privileges to prisoners, experience shows that they are likely to abuse those concessions.
Ministers privately concede, however, that if the government toughens its attitude and enforces a strict prison code, the IRA may decide to back away from a political settlement in Northern Ireland.
Gerry Adams, president of the IRA's political wing, Sinn Fein, has said better treatment of members of his organization who are being held in British prisons is a condition of progress toward peace.