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N. Ireland Talks Fall Under the Gun

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THE Northern Ireland peace process is suddenly bogged down by a lack of trust on all sides, with a huge arsenal of guns and explosives at the core of the dispute.

This weekend, politicians and diplomats in London and Dublin are rushing to rescue from collapse the process that has brought the once war-torn region 12 months of peace.

The two governments have worked together toward peace in British-ruled Northern Ireland for years, which seemed within grasp after the Irish Republican Army unilaterally declared a cease-fire a year ago.

But John Bruton, the Irish prime minister, this week revealed a deep divide between the two nations over when the Irish Republican Army should hand in its weapons - thus decreasing the chance of a return to warfare by the IRA and Protestant paramilitary groups.

A 'fundamental' problem

Mr. Bruton asked Tuesday that a summit meeting with Britain's Prime Minister John Major scheduled for the following day be postponed. A senior official in Dublin said yesterday that Mr. Major ''fundamentally misunderstands'' the attitude of the IRA toward British demands that it should hand in weapons before all-party talks on Northern Ireland can begin.

But some fear that forcing the IRA to quickly hand in their arsenal of weapons would push hard-liners in the paramilitary group to take up their 25-year-long guerrilla war again.

Michael Evans, a London-based military analyst, says arms and plastic explosives are the ''sole reason for the IRA's power.'' If the IRA handed in its weapons, members would ''symbolically strip themselves of their source of authority.''

''The gun culture is all they have,'' Mr. Evans says.

But Major's officials are just as adamant that Irish Prime Minister Bruton is being too lenient. Sir Patrick Mayhew, Britain's Northern Ireland secretary, is insisting that before members of Sinn Fein, the IRA's political wing, can be invited to the conference table, at least some terrorist weapons must be surrendered.

''There is no justification for violence,'' he said Wednesday. ''There is no justification for threatening to go back to violence. It is that threat which lies at the heart of the IRA's insistence on retaining arms.''

Gerry Adams, president of Sinn Fein, assured his followers that he would not budge on the weapons issue.

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