THE peace process in Northern Ireland has been thrown into disarray by Britain's admission that, despite numerous denials, it has held secret contacts with the Irish Republican Army (IRA) for the last nine months.
The revelation forced on the government by a detailed account of the exchanges in the London Observer on Nov. 28 has prompted calls by political leaders of Northern Ireland for the resignation of John Major, the prime minister. There is also pressure on Sir Patrick Mayhew, Britain's secretary for Northern Ireland affairs, to step down following official confirmation that he helped to write secret messages to the IRA while telling the British parliament that no talks were occuring.
Mr. Major's position looks particularly exposed, since he said only a month ago that the idea of holding talks with the IRA ``turns my stomach.'' Downing Street now admits that last February Major personally authorized sending a message to the terrorists, proposing further contacts.
The revelations have provoked a storm of protest from leading Northern Ireland politicians. Peter Robinson, deputy leader of the Democratic Unionist Party, said the government had exposed ``the tip of a deceitful iceberg,'' and demanded that Major resign because he had ``undermined the trust of the people of Northern Ireland.'' Credibility damaged
Major is unlikely to be forced out, but his position will be unenviable. Major has succeeded in angering the Protestants of Northern Ireland, embarrassing the Irish government, and alienating many of his own Conservative supporters. There is a long-standing tradition that British ministers do not knowingly mislead the House of Commons. Kevin McNamara, the opposition Labour Party's spokesman on Northern Ireland, said that Major's credibility had been ``severely damaged.'' In the past four weeks, Major and other ministers had been critical of attempts by John Hume, leader of the Social Democratic and Labour Party in Northern Ireland, to maintain a dialogue with Sinn Fein, the political wing of the IRA.
In Dublin, Irish Prime Minister Albert Reynolds said he had not been told at any stage of the secret contacts between London and the IRA. Mr. Reynolds is to meet Major in a few days for a summit meeting at which the Northern Ireland peace process is expected to top the agenda.
The impact of the revelation is likely to be profound on Ulster Unionist politicians, who had been assured by Major that he would not authorize contacts with the IRA. The Unionists hold the balance of votes in the House of Commons, where the government's majority is only 17 seats.
British officials in Belfast confirmed on Nov. 27 that last February they had been approached by an IRA leader who said that the time had arrived to negotiate an end to hostilities. Major authorized a response, which was drafted by the Northern Ireland secretary and passed to the IRA through an intermediary.
The contacts, a Belfast official said, had continued ``sporadically'' for the next nine months. Martin McGuinness, a senior Sinn Fein official, contradicted this account, saying the contacts had been ``intense, and sometimes on a day-to-day basis.'' Terrorism continues
The exchanges failed to produce a political breakthrough, British government sources said, because the IRA leadership had been unable to assert control over renegade bomb and murder squads that continued a reign of terror in Northern Ireland and mainland Britain while the talks continued.
In Dublin Mr. Reynolds said the Irish government hoped Major would press on with the peace process, but conceded that the anger of Northern Ireland Protestants had been aroused. ``The mood for peace may have changed,'' he said. ``Everybody seems to be going in all directions.''