THE British government and the political wing of the Irish Republican Army (IRA) have taken what may be an important step toward unblocking the Northern Ireland peace process.
Sir Patrick Mayhew, Britain's secretary for Northern Ireland, and Gerry Adams, president of Sinn Fein, held secret talks last Tuesday in Londonderry, the province's second-largest city, an Irish newspaper reported this weekend.
The news quickly earned the wrath of the British-ruled province's Protestant politicians, and Sinn Fein has since tempered its readiness to talk with the promise of street demonstrations in Belfast in coming days.
But former US Congressman Bruce Morrisson, leading a five-person Irish-American delegation to Northern Ireland, was reported to be delighted that Mr. Mayhew and Mr. Adams had met for what British sources later called fruitful exploratory discussions. The meeting was the second between Mayhew and Adams. The first, which was little more than a formal shaking of hands, was in May during a Washington conference on economic development in Northern Ireland.
When it became clear that important political questions were discussed at Tuesday's meeting, unionist members of Parliament, who favor maintaining union with Britain, expressed outrage.
William Ross, a parliamentary member of the Ulster Unionist Party (UUP), said, "It is clear that it was not only a secret meeting, but that it was intended that it be kept secret forever." David Trimble, another senior UUP member, said the meeting would "be seen by Sinn Fein as a sign of the British government's weakness." He added: "They will take it as a green light to apply pressure in the sure expectation that their demands will be met."
Details of the agenda for last week's secret exchanges seem unlikely to be released by either side, but there were indications from well-placed British sources that two items received detailed discussion.
Mayhew is believed to have reiterated his demand that the IRA agree to begin a process for decommissioning its weapons and explosives. Adams is believed to have pressed for the speedy transfer to the Irish Republic of 20 or more IRA prisoners currently in British jails.
Last week the Irish Parliament ratified the European Convention on the Transfer of Sentenced Persons. This gives Dublin legal authority to detain prisoners for crimes committed in another jurisdiction.
As the peace process begun last August has continued to bog down in recent weeks, it has become clear to observers that a trade-off between British policy on IRA prisoners and the decommissioning of IRA weapons and explosives offers the best prospect for further progress.
Last week Britain agreed to move three IRA prisoners held at a jail in England back to Northern Ireland to serve the rest of their sentences. This will bring to 18 the number of terrorist prisoners moved to Northern Ireland, leaving 24 still in mainland Britain.
The problem of decommissioning weapons looks to be a tougher nut to crack, but interest has begun to focus on proposals that Mayhew is expected to outline to Dick Spring, the Irish foreign minister, in coming days. The plan is reported to contain suggestions for setting up a commission to supervise the destruction of weapons held by IRA and Protestant paramilitary units.
There have been suggestions that the commission could include US or Canadian officials. The presence of former congressman Morrison in Belfast was seen as a hopeful sign. Last year Morrison, who is close to President Clinton, played a key part in precipitating the IRA cease-fire.