N. Ireland Talks Fall Under the Gun

THE Northern Ireland peace process is suddenly bogged down by a lack of trust on all sides, with a huge arsenal of guns and explosives at the core of the dispute.

This weekend, politicians and diplomats in London and Dublin are rushing to rescue from collapse the process that has brought the once war-torn region 12 months of peace.

The two governments have worked together toward peace in British-ruled Northern Ireland for years, which seemed within grasp after the Irish Republican Army unilaterally declared a cease-fire a year ago.

But John Bruton, the Irish prime minister, this week revealed a deep divide between the two nations over when the Irish Republican Army should hand in its weapons - thus decreasing the chance of a return to warfare by the IRA and Protestant paramilitary groups.

A 'fundamental' problem

Mr. Bruton asked Tuesday that a summit meeting with Britain's Prime Minister John Major scheduled for the following day be postponed. A senior official in Dublin said yesterday that Mr. Major ''fundamentally misunderstands'' the attitude of the IRA toward British demands that it should hand in weapons before all-party talks on Northern Ireland can begin.

But some fear that forcing the IRA to quickly hand in their arsenal of weapons would push hard-liners in the paramilitary group to take up their 25-year-long guerrilla war again.

Michael Evans, a London-based military analyst, says arms and plastic explosives are the ''sole reason for the IRA's power.'' If the IRA handed in its weapons, members would ''symbolically strip themselves of their source of authority.''

''The gun culture is all they have,'' Mr. Evans says.

But Major's officials are just as adamant that Irish Prime Minister Bruton is being too lenient. Sir Patrick Mayhew, Britain's Northern Ireland secretary, is insisting that before members of Sinn Fein, the IRA's political wing, can be invited to the conference table, at least some terrorist weapons must be surrendered.

''There is no justification for violence,'' he said Wednesday. ''There is no justification for threatening to go back to violence. It is that threat which lies at the heart of the IRA's insistence on retaining arms.''

Gerry Adams, president of Sinn Fein, assured his followers that he would not budge on the weapons issue.

Adams is holding to the line that a date must be set for all-party talks before weapons even can be discussed. Indeed, handing in weapons has never been a set precondition for talks.

''We will not surrender our arms either through the back door or the front door,'' an IRA source said Wednesday.

On the surface, officials disagree over how to set up a proposed international commission for supervising arms handovers. But at a deeper level the issue centers on the IRA's historic refusal to hand over weapons in response to British demands.

In the run-up to the planned Major-Bruton summit, the two governments tried - and failed - to agree on how the proposed commission would operate.

London wants the commission to be a mainly military body that would physically oversee the decommissioning of arms and explosives caches. Dublin officials say its role should be political, and that Major ought to be satisfied if paramilitary groups offered guarantees that they would never again resort to violence.

Early this week, it appeared the clash of views had been resolved. But, according to Mayhew's officials, Adams warned the Irish prime minister that he could not go along with the formula about to be agreed to between the two governments.

But Sir Patrick held firm. ''It's not that the IRA can't hand in their weapons, but that they won't,'' he said.

Peace is a two-way street

Adams responds to such views by maintaining that ''decommissioning is a two-way street.'' He equates the IRA's retention of its weapons with the continuing presence of several thousand fully armed British troops in Northern Ireland. He has made it clear that if and when he gets to the negotiating table he will demand the troops' removal.

In a move underlining the seriousness of the crisis, Bruton delayed a planned official visit to Canada to enable him to keep in touch with developments.

Meanwhile, Tony Blair, Britain's Labour Party opposition leader, urged both sides to reach early agreement on the way ahead.

Normally, the opposition leader is content to let Major head up a bipartisan approach to Northern Ireland. But after a visit to Belfast, the province's capital, Mr. Blair said: ''They have to bridge the gap if the peace process is to continue.''

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