SUDDENLY, the drive toward peace in Northern Ireland has hit a deep pothole.
The province is in danger of sliding into a new period of violence, leading Northern Ireland politicians warn Prime Minister John Major.
They say that this week's street riots, triggered by the release of a British soldier in prison for murder, threaten cease-fires begun nearly a year ago. And they want Mr. Major's new government to put a new push for peace at the top of its agenda.
The need for urgency has been underlined by three successive nights of violence in Northern Ireland cities, evoking memories of paramilitary fighting between largely Catholic nationalists, who seek to end British rule, and mainly Protestant unionists who want to retain it. The fighting turned the province into a virtual war zone from 1969 onward.
The shaken peace process could move forward if Britain released from prison Irish Republican Army members convicted of terrorism in return for the monitored decommissioning of IRA weapons, according to sources in Northern Ireland's nationalist community. But the same sources say the first move is up to Britain.
John Hume, the Northern Ireland politician who has played a key part the peace process, says a British government decision on July 3 to release a soldier, Pvt. Lee Clegg, who was jailed for murdering a Catholic teenager four years ago, was ''unwise and insensitive.''
Martin McGuinness, top strategist of Sinn Fein, the political wing of the IRA, is even more angry. He says the release of Private Clegg was ''disgraceful'' and is ''producing great anger and frustration'' among Northern Ireland's nationalists.
Mr. McGuinness was speaking after rioting in Belfast and other Northern Ireland centers in protest against the soldier's release. For the first time in more than a year, police had to don flak jackets and fire plastic bullets as angry protesters moved through the streets of Belfast, Londonderry, and other cities - gasoline-bombing buses, trucks, and vans.
The violence comes a few weeks ahead of Northern Ireland's ''marching season,'' when Protestant groups parade through the streets marking famous battles in which their side won. It is a time of year when tempers are apt to flare.
Patrick Mayhew, Britain's secretary for Northern Ireland, signed the papers for Clegg's release and defended the move on the grounds that a parole board had recommended it.
But Mr. Hume says Clegg had special treatment, and McGuinness says Britain was ''bending the rules.'' Both contrast Clegg's early release from a life sentence with the continued detention of many IRA members also jailed for murder.
At the same time, Britain is being pressured by some unionists, who say they also are being treated unfairly and demand the release from prison of Protestant paramilitary members.
Clegg's release came after a long campaign mounted by his relatives with the support of several dozen Conservative members of the British Parliament. Clegg was imprisoned for killing Karen Reilly in a shootout at an Army checkpoint in September 1990. She was in a stolen car. At his trial, Clegg said he had thought Reilly belonged to an armed gang. The bullet that killed her was fired into the rear of the car as it passed through the checkpoint. The court decided Clegg had exceeded the rules of engagement, which forbid shooting at retreating vehicles, and gave him a life sentence for murder. Campaigners for his release said he had been jailed on a technicality.
The political impact of Clegg's release appears to have surprised the London government. It came during the Conservative Party leadership campaign, and Major's attention may have been on other things.
Major and Mr. Mayhew say the cases of IRA gunmen jailed for murder cannot be compared with that of Clegg. But in Dublin, Prime Minister John Bruton apparently disagrees. He said Tuesday he expected the British to approach ''all other similar cases'' in the same way as it handled Clegg's release.
In the angry atmosphere created by the release of Clegg, who is being allowed to return to his regiment, it is hard to see how peace talks can proceed. An option may be for Mayhew to release three men jailed in 1988 for murdering two British Army corporals.
Sinn Fein President Gerry Adams is demanding that the three men be freed. If that happens, nationalist sources say, the way may clear for a compromise.