Leading Northern Ireland nationalists and republicans are complaining that peace hopes in the province are being thwarted by a parliamentary "numbers game" the British prime minister is playing.
Paradoxically, however, nationalists are continuing to suggest that a new cease-fire by the Irish Republican Army (IRA) could be declared before Christmas.
John Hume, leader of the Social Democratic and Labour Party, and Gerry Adams, president of Sinn Fein, the political arm of the IRA, both claimed last week that Prime Minister John Major's razor-thin majority in the House of Commons was the reason why the Northern Ireland peace process had bogged down.
They complained that Mr. Major, whose margin in the Commons is down to a single vote, has decided he must rely on the support of Ulster Unionist members of Parliament, and that this caused him to reject a new peace formula they proposed to him last month. But Major and his ministers have rejected the charge, insisting that the formula Mr. Hume and Mr. Adams conveyed to Downing Street did not contain an IRA commitment to a permanent cease-fire.
Despite Major's seemingly negative comments, on Sunday Hume insisted that there was a "serious chance" of persuading the IRA to lay down its arms before Christmas. Yet a Sinn Fein spokesman said he had no information on such a move.
Full details of the new Hume-Adams initiative have yet to be published, but it has been reported that it proposed a cease-fire by the IRA in return for confidence-building measures on Britain's part, including the early release of IRA members held for terrorist offenses.
Since February, when the IRA ended a 17-month cease-fire by exploding a huge bomb in London's docklands, peace talks in the Northern Ireland capital Belfast have been stalled. Hume and Adams engineered the August 1994 cease-fire, and they have tried since May to persuade the IRA to call another truce.
FOR their part, the Ulster Unionists, headed by David Trimble and the Rev. Ian Paisley, have been pressing Major to hold firm against anything less than a permanent cessation of violence by the IRA.
Last week Major made a statement in Commons demanding a permanent cease-fire by the IRA. He said the IRA must prove "in word and deed" that it was serious about peace. Hume responded by complaining that Major appeared to be playing a "numbers game." Hume was drawing attention to the fact that without the support of nine Unionist MPs in the Commons, Major's government was in danger of losing its parliamentary majority. The Unionists are hostile to letting Sinn Fein join the multiparty talks. In order to remain in power, any British government has to command a majority in the lower house of Parliament.
Major's resistance to the new Hume-Adams initiative has put him at odds with the Dublin government. Dick Spring, the Irish foreign minister, last week expressed concern that Major had issued a unilateral statement on the peace process without first consulting Dublin. Mr. Spring's officials said that without joint concerted action by London and Dublin, the possibility of advancing the peace process was slight. A summit between the British and Irish prime ministers is scheduled for Dec. 9.
Mr. Paisley, leader of the hard-line Democratic Unionist Party, has rebuked Major for his handling of the peace process. This weekend he told the DUP's annual conference that the prime minister was "offering concession after concession" to secure a new cease-fire, and was "in the capitulation business."
Major's advisers say, however, that they are being cautious about cease-fire offers by the IRA because they have evidence of a split within the organization, with one faction favoring peace, and the other committed to a continuing campaign of violence.