Early in the day, they went on record condemning the British "occupation" of Northern Ireland.

Later on, they were notably reluctant to endorse any special claims for consideration by ethnic Americans or homosexuals.

In between, they decided that they ought to sponsor a conference next December where people like themselves could discuss a whole range of issues even more extensively.

It was not a gathering of the Friendly Sons of St. Patrick, the Daughters of the American Revolution or the Save Our Children Federation - although there were touches of all three.

Instead, it was the 25-member executive committee of the Democratic National Committee, slipping the White House leash and going off on its own in a bewildering variety of directions.

Some of the members suggested privately that it showed the mistake of meeting in Washington in the heat of August. Others said it showed what can happen to a political party when its President is preoccupied with such major matters as the Panama Canal treaty and the fate of his budget director, and forgets to send over instructions on what he wants done.

Whatever the explanation, the all-day meeting at the Capital Hilton of the Democrats' top governing body was one to remember.

The morning session was barely an hour old when Patrick J. Cunningham of New York called up a resolution condemning what he called "a government-sponsored practice of deliberate discrimination against the half-million Catholics" in Northern Ireland.

It called on the President and the State Department to urge the British government to first "end the bloodshed" and then "end the occupation of the terriotry of Northern Ireland by foreign troops."

The executive committee is not in the habit of passing foreign policy resolutions, and kenneth B. Curtis, the mild-mannered former Maine governor whom Carter installed as party chairman, inquired of his colleagues "how much of this sort of thing you think the executive committee should do?"

The only response was a suggestion by Joseph Crangle of New York that a copy of the resolution be sent to Ambassador Andrew Young at the United Nations. That was promptly done, and the resolution was passed unanimously.

Flushed by their success in foreign policy, the executive committee members turned to the work of planning for the midterm party conference.

They decided to invite 1,627 Democrats to a gathering in the first half of December next year to discuss "the state of the Democratic Party and its future." A site-selection committee will review bids from 10 cities: Anabeim, Cincinnati, Denver, Detroit, Fort Worth, Honolulu, Memphis, Pittsburgh, Portland, Ore, and Seattle.

While the White House has given clear indications in the past that it wishes the midterm conference would just go away. Curtis aured the executive committee that "from the President on down, no one has any fear of Democrats confronting the issues."

In the afternoon, the executive committee itself confronted the now-familiar Democratic issue of affirmative action to help assure access to party affairs for groups that have been victims of discrimination.

The traditional formula pledges efforts to "encourage full participation by all democrats, with particular concern for minority groups, native Americans, women and youth."

The committee staff proposed adding "ethnic American" to the list of favored species, touching off a free-swinging debate.

Some members suggested that since ethnic groups vary from state to state, each state should handle the problem in its own way. That led Charles Manatt of California to inquire whether there should be special protection for "gays."

"Only if they're minorities. Indians or young," said Mayor Coleman Young of Detroit.

Robert Washington of Washington, D.C., proposed that "ethnic Americans" be dropped from the proposed rule, and that was agreed to by a 13-to-12 vote.

At that point, Mayor Young, apparently feeling the executive committee had done enough for one day, suggested that remaining issues of foreign policy, domestic policy and party policy be referred to a subcommittee.

That was done.