THE United States must strive to be even-handed between Northern Ireland's two communities if there is to be a real chance of moving the peace process ahead, says John Bruton, prime minister of the Republic of Ireland.
In an interview ahead of his meeting with President Clinton on Friday in Washington, Mr. Bruton stresses that the White House should not focus too heavily on Gerry Adams, president of Sinn Fein, who is also meeting Mr. Clinton for the first time, on St. Patrick's Day (March 17). ''It is very important that there be gestures made to both communities,'' Bruton says.
''The Unionist community has a very strong sense of its loyalty to Britain and of its own identity. For any peace policy to work, both sides need to be reconciled, and for that to happen, their concerns must be fully understood so that mutual confidence can begin to build.''
Bruton, leader of Ireland's Fine Gael Party, was elected prime minister last December as head of a coalition government. He emphasizes that the cease-fire ordered by both sides in the Northern Ireland conflict last fall was only ''one step in what must be a continuing process.''
It would be wrong, Bruton says, for the US or Britain or anyone else to ''lay down an agenda for the decommissioning of arms held by both sides.'' The US needs to ''recognize Protestant fears as well as Republican political aims,'' he says. ''You need to create a space in which people can write the agenda themselves. That is why it is important to respect the aims of both sides.''
The Northern Ireland dispute boils down to this: Republicans, mainly Catholics, want a united and separate Ireland; Unionists, primarily Protestants, want to maintain union with England.
Bruton considers that the framework document, issued Feb. 22 by the British and Irish governments, offers ''the key to future progress on the arms question and other matters that still foster suspicion between the two communities.''
''It sets out in detail, for the first time, a major agenda of change in terms of the way national identities are recognized. In the island of Ireland, we are trying to change the system of territorial national identity, which has prevailed in the 19th and most of the 20th century.
''We want to encourage a system whereby within one territory you can have two nationalities of equal legitimacy living and sharing the same space, the same streets. The symbolism must be there to recognize the rights of both traditions.''
This, Bruton believes, will require a radical shift in ways of thinking, and it needs encouragement ''by all those who are trying to help Northern Ireland move in the direction of peace.''
Bruton says he was convinced that by indicating to the Clinton administration last week that Sinn Fein would be willing to discuss decommissioning of arms, Mr. Adams took ''a necessary step'' toward wider political negotiations.
It was ''important that the Republicans recognize the fears that those arsenals of arms evoke within the Loyalist community,'' he says.
''But equally, the Loyalists have to accept that there are profound concerns among nationalists and Republicans about the arms held by Protestant paramilitary groups,'' he says.
On suggestions that decommissioning arms should be organized by a disarmament commission, Bruton counsels patience and caution. ''Everybody has to have ownership of the ideas up for discussion before progress can occur, and it is better that they come up with the ideas themselves rather than let somebody like me lay down the rules.''
He adds: ''The issue of arms, however, is the one on which there must be progress if the door is to be opened to progress on broader political issues. The aim is to achieve an engagement between the Unionists and Sinn Fein in serious dialogue.''
On that dialogue, Bruton differs from what he calls ''the traditional Irish Republican analysis of the Northern Ireland problem.''
''It is necessary for them to come to terms not only, or mainly, with Britain, but with the Unionists of the province. There exists a substantial Unionist community, which is there whether the British are there or not. There has to be a genuine engagement between the Republican and nationalist tradition, and the Unionist tradition. That will not be possible while arms are still around.''
In an implied criticism of the Clinton administration's previous policy of invitations to Adams, he suggests that in future, invitations to Unionist leaders to visit the US should not be ''as an afterthought after somebody else has been asked to come.''