BRITAIN expressed caution yesterday at the advice of a panel, led by former Sen. George Mitchell, nudging Britain toward a deal on disarming the Irish Republican Army.
Since peace talks stalled last summer, the two longtime enemies have refused to waver on how the IRA should give up its substantial arsenal in Northern Ireland after the guerrilla group halted its violent campaign to end British rule there in 1994.
The panel's findings pressure Britain to let go of its consistent demand that the IRA relinquish or ''decommission'' some of its weapons before all-party talks began. While British Prime Minister John Major lauded the efforts of the report, he said ''practical problems remain in bringing all the parties together for talks.''
But he added that one path could be an election in Northern Ireland to form a negotiating body that would take up the question of disarmament.
''We have concluded that the paramilitary organizations will not decommission any arms prior to all-party negotiations,'' the panel's report says. ''That is the reality.''
The panel was set up late last year with the approval of Mr. Major and his Irish counterpart, John Bruton, as peace talks stalled over the issue of disarming the IRA and Protestant guerrilla groups. The report is the product of month-long discussions with all parties to the Northern Ireland conflict.
The report also suggests setting up an elected Northern Ireland negotiating assembly. This is a key Protestant demand, and Protestant leader David Trimble said yesterday ''that demand must be met before anything else can happen.''
''It will be difficult to reject the findings of a panel we helped set up and made detailed representations to,'' a senior Conservative member of the British Parliament said.
Gerry Adams, who leads the political wing of the IRA, Sinn Fein, welcomed the report. He said he was ''glad'' that the panel had accepted that prior decommissioning of arms was ''unrealizable.'' Sinn Fein is committed to ''inclusive, honest dialogue,'' he added, urging that full-party talks begin immediately.
But the report sparked bitter complaints from Northern Ireland's Protestant leaders. Like Britain, they have insisted that a handover of arms must precede full negotiations. They began contesting the panel's reported findings even before it was formally published and say they will not negotiate with Sinn Fein while the IRA is still armed.
''This changes nothing,'' said Mr. Trimble, leader of the dominant Ulster Unionist Party. ''We face the same problem that we've had before. We are not in a position to move toward all-party talks because of the refusal of one party to meet reasonable requirements.''
Prime Minister Major depends on the Ulster Unionists for an assured majority in the British Parliament.
The Rev. Ian Paisley, leader of the smaller and more radical Democratic Unionist Party, said the report appeared to ''put pressure on Britain to cave in to gunmen.'' He called the report ''farce, fudge, and falsehood that plays into the hands of the IRA.''
Mr. Mitchell, a former Senate majority leader and a Democrat from Maine who has been close to President Clinton in discussing Northern Ireland issues, told a Belfast news conference that his team did not believe their report would in itself achieve an agreed settlement in Northern Ireland, but were convinced it could contribute.
Mitchell urged ''all concerned'' to ''take a risk for peace.'' It was ''incumbent on all to compromise,'' he added. The panel encourages all parties to the Northern Ireland conflict not to think in terms of victory or defeat.
''Rigid adherence by the parties to their past positions will simply continue the stalemate which has already lasted too long. The risks may seem high, but the reward is great,'' he said.
A second panel member, Harri Holkeri, a former Finnish prime minister, said what was needed now was ''a decommissioning of mind sets'' in Northern Ireland.
Although the report seeks to put the issue of arms decommissioning in a broad political context, it accepts that the large quantities of weapons and explosives held by the IRA and Protestant paramilitary groups are a core issue that must be addressed. Before all-party talks could begin, Mitchell said, those attending them would have to commit themselves to six basic principles ''to build trust'':
* Democratic and exclusively peaceful political methods.
* Total disarmament of all paramilitary organizations.
* Disarmament verified by an independent commission.
* Renunciation of using force during all-party negotiations.
* Unconditional acceptance of the outcome of talks.
* The end of all ''punishment killings'' and beatings by paramilitary groups.