The Secret IRA Meetings: A severe jolt to the Ulster peace process: The weekend's revelations leave the Unionists - on whose support the Government relies - feeling betrayed, writes David McKittrick

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WHEN the immediate storm over the exposure of the secret channel of communication between London and the IRA has died down, the key issue is whether the prospects for peace have been harmed.

At the moment it is impossible to give a definite answer, but it is already clear that some of the basic grammar of the situation has been changed by the revelations.

The British government's credibility has taken a severe knock in Ireland, among both Unionists and nationalists. It was already widely suspected that Sir Patrick Mayhew's frequent and vehement denials contained some sort of loophole. That has now been confirmed. Suspicion is therefore rife that Sir Patrick's explanation yesterday may not be fully frank, and that more surreptitious dealings may yet be discovered.

Amid much bitterness, the feeling of betrayal within the Unionist community, already endemically insecure, was palpable yesterday. In Sir Patrick's own offices, Stormont Castle, employees could be seen listening anxiously to his lunchtime press conference on radios.

This sense of betrayal may have grave implications both for hopes of peace and for the Major government. For some months John Major has had a close 'arrangement' with the nine Ulster Unionist MPs, led by James Molyneaux, which has led that party to expect political gains in exchange for supporting the Government in tight votes.

Mr Molyneaux waited for more than a decade to be in a position which would allow him to bring such pressure on a weak prime minister, and he will be loath to move away from that situation. The question is, however, whether Unionist public opinion will allow the Tory-Unionist understanding to continue, or whether Mr Molyneaux will be forced against his own wishes to denounce the Government.

The Prime Minister's hope of keeping Unionist support was, it is widely surmised, one of the considerations which led him to turn down the Hume-Adams talks initiative. It was also one of the factors which has led him to decline, so far, to take up the invitation of the Irish Prime Minister, Albert Reynolds, to join him in a venture aimed at bringing about an end to IRA violence.

If the Unionists were to withdraw their support, however, Mr Major might feel less constrained about joining Mr Reynolds in his approach. If on the other hand Mr Molyneaux manages to preserve the understanding, Mr Major will know that Unionists could envisage that only in return for a complete and final rejection of the Taoiseach's overtures.

Another consequence of the weekend revelations has been to deal a severe and possibly fatal blow to the inter-party talks process which is the centrepiece of Mr Major's approach. Unionist politicians are unlikely to place much trust in Sir Patrick as chairman of future talks.

Much will depend on the reaction in Parliament, and on the general verdict of British public opinion on the question of contacts with republicans.

If the verdict is that the Government was wrong to pursue this avenue, then presumably communications between the Government and the IRA will cease for the foreseeable future. That would be a setback for Mr Reynolds's hope, shared by the SDLP leader, John Hume, that a declaration on the question of Irish self- determination could lead to the end of the IRA campaign.

The force of Unionist feeling, and the judgment of British public opinion, has yet to emerge, but the revelations will have a major impact on Northern Ireland's peace prospects.