A YEAR ago, few would have imagined that the prime ministers of the Irish Republic and Britain would come together on the soil of troubled Belfast and introduce a peace deal for Northern Ireland.
Riding on the hopes of nearly six months of peace that followed 25 years of terrorist violence in the British-ruled province, John Major of Britain and John Bruton of the Irish Republic yesterday struck through the blistering attacks of Protestant leaders to appeal directly to the people of Northern Ireland.
The two leaders insisted their plan, a long-awaited formula for negotiations on the province's future, is the best hope for permanent peace among Northern Ireland's Protestants and the Catholic minority.
They will have to keep up their stamina to ride out a storm of criticism by leading Protestant politicians, who are concerned that the document weakens Britain's ties to the province and condemned it even before it was published.
The Rev. Ian Paisley, leader of the hard-line Democratic Unionist Party, called it ``a nationalist agenda'' and ``a declaration of war'' on Protestants.
James Molyneaux, leader of the moderate Ulster Unionist Party (UUP), which also favors links with Britain, chose a more subtle tactic. It will likely also be more successful: He preempted London and Dublin by publishing his own alternative plan for Northern Ireland.
Mr. Molyneaux insisted that his proposals were ``more realistic and practical'' than the joint Anglo-Irish document that appeared the next day.
In what analysts see as a possibly crucial change of tack, Major - who met Bruton in Dublin before their peace proposals were published - told the British Parliament on Tuesday that the Molyneaux plan could be used as a basis for discussion, along with the official framework document.
Eleanor Goodman, a leading London-based political analyst, says that by allowing the Molyneaux document to form part of the political agenda, Mr. Major ``has made it possible for the unionists to take part in future discussions.''
Even so, advisers to Major and Mr. Bruton accept that the two leaders are embarking on a hazardous project that could still go wrong. ``They are walking a high wire,'' one British Cabinet minister said.
``They are pinning their hopes on the war-weariness of the people of Northern Ireland,'' the minister said. ``Those people may not be too impressed if their political leaders adopt rigid positions and destroy the cease-fire that has prevailed since last September.''
The Anglo-Irish framework document aims at promoting talks among the London and Dublin governments and Northern Ireland political parties, including Sinn Fein, the political wing of the Irish Republican Army.
The goal is power-sharing between the two communities and creating links in such matters as tourism between Northern Ireland and the Irish Republic.
IRISH premier Bruton called the framework document ``balanced and fair'' and said it ``threatened nobody.'' The aim was to ``facilitate, not preempt dialogue'' and not to impose a blueprint over the heads of the people. The people of both parts of Ireland would have the final say, he said.
John Hume, the moderate nationalist politician whose talks in the last two years with Sinn Fein leader Gerry Adams set the peace process going, called for calm appraisal of the framework document. ``Dialogue has brought us to where we are, and dialogue is the only way to bring us to agreement,'' Mr. Hume said. Martin McGuinness, deputy leader of Sinn Fein, said his party would study the document and make its views known after its conference this coming weekend.
Major and Bruton both heavily stressed the ``triple lock'' element of the framework document, intended to allay unionist fears of a sell-out to the nationalists.
It means that any progress towards a lasting settlement would have to be approved in advance by all the parties, by the London and Dublin parliaments, and by voters in both parts of Ireland through parallel referendums.
The UUP alternative proposals urge the early creation of an interim power-sharing assembly in Northern Ireland but say nothing about links or contacts between Dublin and Belfast.
Initial Unionist reaction to the Anglo-Irish proposals was angry.
Peter Robinson, Mr. Paisley's deputy, said they amounted to an ``eviction notice'' to leave the United Kingdom.
Ken Maginnis, a leading UUP member of the British Parliament, said it was an attempt to ``buy off IRA terrorism.''
In Northern Ireland, however, informed commentators say the chances of Major and Bruton being able to ride out the political storm are better today than they would have been in the recent past. They are certain to be encouraged by evidence that the peace process is being strongly supported by the people of Northern Ireland.
According to a poll by Ulster Marketing Services, in 1993 only 6 percent of the population expected a more peaceful year. In 1994 the proportion had risen to 23 percent, and last month it was at 66 percent.