The old empire has gradually faded for Britain and it is time to change its imperial posture toward Ireland, its first colony. Britain's recent announcement regarding Hong Kong, another land whose name connotes the ''glory days'' of empire, makes even more compelling the need for British action in Ireland. The British have agreed to relinquish control of the colony by the year 1997. They have recognized that Hong Kong is an integral part of the People's Republic of China and they have negotiated a peaceful, planned disengagement.
Four of Ireland's constitutional political parties recently presented the British government with an opportunity to begin serious discussion on the North. The New Ireland Forum Report, which developed from months of study and debate of the issue, studied all facets of the Northern Ireland question, and proposed realistic options for reform. Members of the forum based their work, and their presentation to the British government, on the premise that any solution must recognize the dignity and include the consent of all sides in the Six Counties.
To date, the British have made little response to the report, and their few comments have been negative.
If there is one side that the report takes, it is the side of human rights. What is unacceptable in Northern Ireland is the official and paramilitary terrorism that tramples human and civil rights and which has become the governing factor in Northern Irish life. Recent reports on the situation demonstrate that conditions are worsening.
Mary Holland, a reporter for the Irish Press, one of Ireland's major daily newspapers, uncovered evidence that British security forces have been operating on a ''shoot to kill'' principle. She reported a clear pattern in the shooting deaths of several men in their early 20s. Each victim was unarmed when shot down by soldiers.
Since 1969, over 2,300 men, women, and children have been killed in the North , according to the forum report. As the report states, those deaths, in an area with a population of 1.5 million, are equivalent to 350,000 deaths in the United States.
The violence is rooted in the discrimination that was present at the very founding of the Northern Ireland state. The late Terence Cardinal Cooke described the breadth of this discrimination: ''The denial of human and civil rights is evidenced in employment, housing, education, and in the legal system of Northern Ireland.''
In an atmosphere of violence and discrimination, reasonable people must look for the means to create peace and equality. This is what parties to the New Ireland Forum are seeking. They are still awaiting word from London as to whether that goal is shared.
While the Irish wait for the British to act, US leaders must also consider their responsibility on the issue of human rights. The American people have a long tradition of commitment to upholding human rights at home and around the world. It is sometimes surprising that our national leaders are so hesitant to challenge the British government on its dismal record in Northern Ireland.
President Reagan missed a very special opportunity to help the peace process when he visited England and Ireland last June. The President chose not to discuss the forum report with Prime Minister Thatcher, thus missing the chance to demonstrate the seriousness of American feeling on this issue.
In the absence of clear leadership, others must step up to represent our commitment. One way to make the message clear is to appoint a special envoy to Britain and Ireland. That individual would be charged with helping to bring the parties together for productive discussion.
The first step in the Irish peace process is the establishment of justice and democracy in the North. Lasting peace can be achieved when justice prevails.
Although Ireland was England's first colony, part of that nation need not be condemned to be its last. The peace process advocated by the forum provides Britain and Ireland with an agenda for the peaceful resolution of that centuries-old conflict.