LONDON -- The British government disclosed yesterday that Northern Ireland Secretary Patrick Mayhew held secret talks last week with Irish Republican leader Gerry Adams -- drawing the wrath of Protestant unionists.
The meeting was held, the British government said, "to explore the way forward" in the Northern Ireland peace process.
Mr. Adams -- the leader of Sinn Fein, the political arm of the Irish Republican Army -- declared yesterday that although Tuesday's talks in the Northern Ireland city of Londonderry were "businesslike," they failed to break the stalemate in the peace process.
Mr. Adams said he is not optimistic that all-party talks on the future of the troubled province, sought by Sinn Fein, will start soon.
Mr. Adams also denied any strain between his party and the Irish government after Dublin criticized Sinn Fein's return to a campaign of anti-British street protests in mainly Protestant Northern Ireland and in the overwhelmingly Roman Catholic Irish Republic to the south.
Pro-British Protestant politicians want Northern Ireland to remain a British-ruled province. Learning of the meeting, Ken Maginnis of the Ulster Unionist Party said, "We are being betrayed by the government holding clandestine meetings behind closed doors which they try and keep quiet from the public."
The Rev. Ian Paisley, the leader of the Democratic Unionist Party, called the secret talks confirmation of the "government's diabolical deal with the IRA to sustain the hoax peace process."
And David Trimble, an Ulster Unionist member of the British Parliament, said the government had sacrificed its own integrity.
"The damage has been done because these talks were carried out behind people's backs," Mr. Trimble said.
But the government defended its controversial action, declaring that the meeting was fully justified and a way of maintaining the cease-fire in Northern Ireland, which went into effect last September.