LONDON -- After not accepting a telephone call from President Clinton for more than a week, Prime Minister John Major relented yesterday afternoon, and, in a 25-minute conversation, promptly struck a tough stance on talks with Sinn Fein, the political wing of the Irish Republican Army.
Mr. Major insisted that Sinn Fein had not yet made a firm enough commitment to "decommission" the arms of the IRA to enter into high-level talks with the British government, according to an account of the conversation provided by the prime minister's office.
Up to now, in a slow-moving but methodical initiative for peace in Northern Ireland, Sinn Fein representatives have held only exploratory sessions with British civil servants.
The prime minister's office said he also expressed "concern" that Mr. Clinton had allowed Gerry Adams, the Sinn Fein president, to raise funds for his political party during a trip to Washington last week. The nationalist leader met the president twice, once at a luncheon given by the speaker of the House, Newt Gingrich, and later at a St. Patrick's Day dinner at the White House.
Mr. Major pointed out that there was a long history of the IRA purchasing arms with money raised in the United States and said it was vital that any funds raised not be used by the organization to replenish its arsenal.
Mr. Clinton, Mr. Major's office said, "acknowledged the importance of decommissioning of weapons," made it clear that the United States favored serious discussions soon between Britain and Sinn Fein, and emphasized that he wanted to see strict accounting procedures in place to keep track of the money raised.
In Washington, a White House official described the telephone conversation as "positive and friendly," and added: "We do have a warm and special relationship with Prime Minister Major in Britain and will continue to build on that," the Reuters news agency reported. Mr. Clinton "reiterated his support for Major's determination to push forward the peace process in Northern Ireland and reaffirmed his desire to continue to play a positive role in support of the joint efforts of the British and Irish governments," the official said.
Mr. Major's tough stand contradicts the impression given by Mr. Adams that substantive talks would occur any day now. It appeared intended to extract some positive sign, perhaps even a symbolic gesture,that Sinn Fein might be ready to remove some weapons from its stockpile, estimated at 100 tons.
The British government has reportedly sent an agenda for the high-level talks to the top Sinn Fein negotiator, Martin McGuinness.
In television interviews yesterday morning, Mr. McGuinness said was "hopeful that talks could take place in the next 10 to 14 days."
The fallout from Mr. Adams' visit has pushed the relationship between Washington and London to its lowest point in years. Mr. Major was so incensed over the president's decision to meet Mr. Adams and allow him to raise money that he declined to accept a phone call on March 10.
The two leaders, who do not have an easy relationship, are scheduled to meet between April 2 and 3, when Mr. Major visits Washington. It will be their third face-to-face encounter.
Speaking from Washington, visiting Irish Prime Minister John Bruton said yesterday that efforts toward peace in Northern Ireland would be accelerated by Mr. Clinton's decision to allow Mr. Adams to visit the United States, despite the consternation it caused among British officials.
In an interview on Irish national radio, Mr. Bruton praised the president's decision to allow Mr. Adams to raise funds for Sinn Fein, and Mr. Clinton's inviting Mr. Adams to St. Patrick's Day ceremonies at the White House. The prime minister said that such treatment would speed progress on the decommissioning of the IRA arsenal.