FRESH REPORTS of the State Department's licensing of an earlier shipment of guns to the police in Northern Ireland raise a nice question. The guns were sent through a friendly British government to a duly constituted uniformed police force-the Royal Ulster Constabulary (RUC)-fighting terrorists. Yet the RUC, though not exclusively sectarian, is still widely perceived as an instrument of the Protestant majority.It has acted against Protestant terrorists but its chief adversaries have been terrorists from the Catholic minority. It has recently been indicted by a commission of the British government itself for mistreating terrorist suspects. Should these 3,000 .357 magnum handguns and 500 .223 automatic rifles have been licensed for sale?

house Speaker Thomas P. O'Neill thinks not. He said the other day that many Irish Amercians regard the RUC as an instrument of repression wielded by the British through their Protestant surrogates, and that selling arms legally to the RUC would undermine the successful effort he and others have made to induce Irish Americans to stop running guns illegally to terrorists of the Irish Republican Army. The new British government responded with prompt and predictable outrage at what it obviously took to be politically motivated interference in a dead serious internal affair. The State Department, as usual, backed the British, stating, "Our people thought [the licensing] was all right. There is a government of Northern Ireland. This is for the police force of Northern Ireland."

But of course there is not, in the usual sense, "a government of Northern Ireland." Britain suspended self-rule in Ulster and now rules directly. The British can fairly claim that it is an old IRA tactic to combat the RUC, by propaganda as by bullets. The RUC has indeed a thankless task in its anti-terrorist mission, and its losses-120 men in 10 years-are to be mourned. Questioning the sale of guns to the RUC is a political act. But selling the guns is a political act, too. The answer, if there is one, lies in a British initiative aimed at restoring self-government to Ulster. Until that happens, questions will and should be raised about the American government's support of a British policy that does not yet seem fully committed to that goal.