THE peace process in Northern Ireland is facing its gravest crisis since a cease-fire brought relief from shootings and bombings 16 months ago.
A renewed outbreak of murders committed by antidrug vigilantes has put the British government under pressure from leading unionists to suspend talks with Sinn Fein, the political wing of the Irish Republican Army (IRA).
On Tuesday, Patrick Mayhew, Britain's secretary for Northern Ireland, for the first time accused the IRA of being behind seven killings that in the last two months have brought assassinations back into the province and imperiled a negotiated settlement.
Mr. Mayhew said he agreed with an assessment by Northern Ireland police that a group calling itself Direct Action Against Drugs, which claims responsibility for the murders, is probably a front for the IRA.
Mitchel McLaughlin, chairman of Sinn Fein, repeatedly has denied that the IRA is responsible for the killings.
But Seamus Mallon, deputy leader of Northern Ireland's Social Democratic and Labour Party, which like Sinn Fein favors separation from Britain, says elements in the IRA are "trying to break the peace."
"There are those within the IRA and other paramilitary organizations who are trying to destroy the peace process by the use of violence," Mr. Mallon says.
He called on Sinn Fein president Gerry Adams to condemn the latest spate of murders. So far Mr. Adams, who wields much more authority than Mr. McLaughlin, has failed to do so.
Moderate nationalists like Mallon say privately that they worry hard-line unionists, who favor maintaining British rule in the province, will use the killings to push British Prime Minister John Major to abandon the peace process altogether - or at least stop talking with Sinn Fein.
Mr. Major's majority in Parliament is down to three seats, which includes support from unionists in Northern Ireland. The unionists could use their votes to embarrass him any time they decide to do so.
On Tuesday, John Taylor, deputy leader of the official Ulster Unionist Party, called on Major to suspend contacts with Sinn Fein, saying "We are now on the slippery slope to the assassination of loyalists [unionists]. That will be the next step in the buildup."
A puzzling feature of the seven murders is that the victims were all members of the Catholic community, where support for separation from Britain lies. According to Belfast police, most of the victims had connections with the trade in illegal narcotics - a longstanding source of funds for both nationalist and loyalist (Protestant) terrorists.
Until the latest round of murders began, Direct Action Against Drugs had never been heard of. This has prompted speculation that the IRA is using an antidrugs label as a flag of convenience.
Kevin Myers, a columnist for Dublin's Irish Times, says some IRA hard-liners "prefer the rule of their guns to the political requirements of the leadership faction of Gerry Adams."
Some observers also speculate that Sinn Fein's leadership is prepared to let the killings continue as a way of allowing radical IRA members to "let off steam."
Belfast police say that, if true, this policy will be fraught with danger. If the gunmen began attacking unionist drug dealers, Protestant paramilitary groups would be quick to retaliate.
"The IRA have got to understand that they cannot kill or bomb their way to the negotiating table," unionist leader Taylor said yesterday.
The crisis in the peace process has arisen as former United States Sen. George Mitchell is starting to prepare a report on the surrendering, or "decommissioning," of terrorist arms.
Senator Mitchell and his team have spoken to all parties in the conflict and are charged with proposing a formula for the handing over weapons. Their report is expected later this month.
Conservative Party member of Parliament Andrew Hunter says Mitchell may hold the key to progress. Unless Mitchell's commission "can solve the impasse on decommissioning, I do not believe the right atmosphere exists for the talks to succeed," Mr. Hunter says.
The IRA has said that it will not meet British demands that it hand in weapons before there is an overall political settlement.
The shaky position of the Major government is being seen by Britain's Irish allies as a worrying element in the crisis.
On New Year's Day, Cardinal Cahal Daly, Primate of all Ireland, said it would be "most unfortunate" if peace in Northern Ireland were to be "allowed to suffer because of internal political difficulties" in the British government.
The next day, Cardinal Daly blamed the IRA for the latest killings, saying "Time is running out for the peace process."
A History of Northern Ireland's Troubled Past
Here, in brief, is a background report on the people in Northern Ireland and the conflict there:
Population 1.6 million. Two-thirds of the population are Protestants, one-third are Catholics. The population growth rate is five times that of England. The infant mortality rate (12.1 per 1,000 live births) exceeds those of both England and the Republic of Ireland. More than two-thirds of the land is used for agriculture.
Northern Ireland, which occupies six counties and 17 percent of the island of Ireland, was the subject of large-scale settlement by English and Scottish Protestants in the early 1600s at a time when the entire island was under British rule. The Protestants quickly became dominant over the native Catholic population. From the early 19th century, Catholics supported a separate Irish Republic while Protestants opposed it. The Home Rule Bill (1920) created separate parliaments for Northern Ireland, known as Ulster, and the south. Ulster Protestants accepted this, but Irish nationalists rejected it. In 1921, Ireland was partitioned into a Protestant-dominated North, still ruled from London, and an independent Republic of Ireland in the south.
In 1969, Catholics began demonstrating for greater civil rights in Northern Ireland, and the protests often turned violent. Tensions worsened on Jan. 30, 1972, when British troops killed 13 civilian protesters in what came to be known as "Bloody Sunday."
Later that year, Britain suspended the Northern Ireland parliament and imposed direct rule. Over the next 25 years, subsequent killings were carried out both by republican (Catholics favoring independence) terrorists (1,902) and unionist (Protestants favoring continued union with Britain) terrorists (951). British government forces killed another 317.
On Sept. 1, 1994, the main republican terrorist group, the Irish Republican Army, declared an unconditional cease-fire, which Protestant terrorists matched with their own truce in the same month. The truces began the current phase of peace talks to negotiate a final settlement on the status of Northern Ireland.
Northern Ireland is governed directly from London. Patrick Mayhew is Secretary of State for Northern Ireland in John Major's Conservative Party government. There are 17 parliamentary seats held by members from Northern Ireland.
Official Ulster Unionist Party: Leader David Trimble. Conservative. Nine members of Parliament (MPs); 216 local councillors; 16 local councils held. The UUP wants to maintain Northern Ireland as a province of Britain. It is the most powerful party in the province.
Democratic Unionist Party: Leader Ian Paisley. Three MPs in Parliament; 104 councillors; one council held. Right-wing conservative, it strongly opposes power-sharing between parties on opposite sides of the religious divide.
Ulster Popular Unionist Party: Leader Robert McCartney. One MP. Founded 1980. Aligned to official Ulster Unionist Party, but more liberal on social issues.
Social Democratic Labour Party: Leader John Hume. Four MPs; 127 councillors; six councils held. Founded 1970. Nationalist, center-left. Mainly Catholic in membership and support; wants reunification of Ireland, but by agreement and consent.
Sinn Fein: Leader Gerry Adams. No MPs; 51 councillors; one council held. Founded in 1905 as political wing of the Irish Republican Army. Supports reunifying Ireland. Refuses to take part in British parliamentary elections. It has gained increasing ballot box support in the last 15 years.
Alliance: Leader John Alderdice. No MPs; 44 councillors; one council held. Wants power-sharing between Catholics and Protestants. The only unionist party with Catholic members.