BRITAIN has bowed to US demands to accelerate the Northern Ireland peace process by making two key concessions to Sinn Fein, the political wing of the Irish Republican Army.
The government will bump up exploratory peace talks with top Sinn Fein representatives to next Wednesday - two weeks earlier than planned.
And perhaps even more significant over the long term, it will include Sinn Fein at an international investment conference in Belfast, the Northern Ireland capital, on Dec. 13 to 14.
Downing Street confirmed the two developments yesterday after media leaks indicated a significant switch in the government's policy.
Until now, Prime Minister John Major has moved slowly on the peace process under pressure from Northern Irish unionists in the British Parliament, who fear Britain will withdraw from the province and leave them stranded. Mr. Major no longer has a clear majority in Parliament, and he depends on the unionists for key votes.
One leading Northern Ireland unionist in Britain's Parliament, William Macrae, greeted the news that Sinn Fein would be present at the Belfast conference with the comment: ``How can they invite to a meeting dealing with future employment people who have spent the last 20 years blowing jobs to pieces?''
Parliamentary sources in London privately conceded that the US had changed Downing Street's mind on both points. The new moves come three months to the day after the IRA began a cease-fire in Northern Ireland.
British sources say the government was forced to change its mind when Ron Brown, the US Commerce Secretary, threatened to boycott the Belfast conference unless Sinn Fein was represented. Mr. Brown will head a large team from the United States at Belfast.
The conference is seen by politicians in Northern Ireland as key to the attempts to build a permanent peace there. The conference will aim to pump new life into the flagging economy of the province, where unemployment levels far exceed those on the British mainland.
Major's policy switch coincided with an announcement from Washington that Gerry Adams, the Sinn Fein president, will hold talks next week with Anthony Lake, the president's national security adviser. It will be Mr. Adams's first White House meeting.
Britain has continued to ask the Clinton administration to keep contact with Adams to a minimum, but with little effect. A White House statement yesterday said Mr. Lake looked forward to hearing Adams's views on the current situation in Northern Ireland and ``to discussing ways in which the peace process can be further advanced and economic prosperity can be promoted.''
Only on Wednesday, Northern Ireland Secretary Sir Patrick Mayhew said it would be ``premature'' to invite Sinn Fein to the conference, which will be attended by 600 delegates from around the world, including 50 from the Clinton administration.
The Belfast meeting is seen as a preliminary step in a prolonged attempt to secure steady investment for Northern Ireland. Next week's peace talks, promise to be more difficult.
The Sinn Fein team will be headed by its vice president, Martin McGuinness, who has taken part in secret talks with British officials over the last two years.
Britain will be represented by senior officials who will want to know when the IRA intends laying down its weapons.
Sinn Fein sources say Mr. McGuinness will insist that Britain begin withdrawing its troops from the province as a sign of goodwill.
Separate talks between British officials and Northern Ireland Protestant leaders are expected to run parallel to the Sinn Fein contacts.