MULTILATERAL Northern Ireland peace talks are scheduled to begin next Monday in a determined bid to take the bomb and gun permanently out of the province's politics.
Under a formula agreed to yesterday by British Prime Minister John Major and his Irish counterpart John Bruton, the ''proximity'' talks involving the London and Dublin governments, and Northern Ireland's political parties, must be completed by March 13.
The aim is to work out a formula for beginning all-party peace talks on the ''fixed date'' of June 10 to a peace forum that will be charged with negotiating a peace settlement. The peace talks would be preceded by elections in Northern Ireland. A final peace settlement, ending 26 years of violence in Northern Ireland.
Before the proposed countdown to inclusive talks begins, however, both leaders said the Irish Republican Army (IRA) must reinstate the cease-fire it broke with bomb attacks in London in early February, and supply a cast-iron guarantee that it will never again resort to violence.
The agreement pressures Gerry Adams, president of Sinn Fein (the IRA's political wing), to try to persuade the IRA to accept the politics of the ballot box and renounce bombs and bullets.
''The violence has done nothing but create difficulty,'' Prime Minister Bruton said. ''It has not in any way accelerated the process.''
The agreement was greeted with skepticism by Northern Ireland's unionist politicians who have said they doubted whether the IRA would be willing to renounce violence permanently and enter a genuine peace process.
But Premiers Major and Bruton pointed to a massive buildup of popular demands in both parts of Ireland that paramilitary groups should accept democratic politics. Huge ''give us back our peace'' rallies were held in many Irish cities at the weekend.
This tidal wave of popular sentiment apparently persuaded the two leaders to accelerate their attempts to relaunch the peace process. British officials confirmed the prime ministers had spent long periods on the telephone hammering out details of yesterday's agreement.
To qualify to enter negotiations, all Northern Ireland parties will be required to subscribe to the six-point declaration of peaceful intent, which was released earlier this year in the independent report on Northern Ireland by former US Senate majority leader George Mitchell.
Mr. Mitchell proposed that the IRA should be allowed to decommission its arms while peace talks went ahead.
The decision by Major and Bruton to name a date for all-party talks represents a considerable achievement by Mr. Adams, who has consistently said that there must be a set date before he would agree to ask the IRA to restore the cease-fire.
BRUTON also held out for a specific date for talks before agreeing to travel to London to meet Major. Their exchanges were held against the background of a furious dispute between Major and David Trimble, leader of the Ulster Unionist Party.
Mr. Trimble wanted an election format based on the 18 constituencies used in elections for the British Parliament. This would give his party a built-in majority.
But John Hume, leader of the Social Democratic and Labour Party (SDLP), and Ian Paisley, leader of the radical Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) have insisted on the system used for elections to the European Parliament.
It seems that those attending the planned so-called proximity talks will be asked to decide what system should be used. If Mr. Hume and Mr. Paisley get their way, Northern Ireland will be treated as a single constituency in the election. This would be likely to boost the representation of the SDLP, the DUP, and possibly Sinn Fein.
But Michael Mates, a former Northern Ireland minister who is close to Major, said there was no question of Sinn Fein being invited to talks ''if the IRA are still conducting a campaign of terror.''