President Clinton, likening Northern Ireland's Catholic and Protestant leaders to "two kids daring each other to go first," called on them tonight to "let go" of their deep-seated mutual suspicions and revive the region's stalled peace process.

Clinton, who has involved himself heavily in efforts to end Northern Ireland's sectarian violence, said recent bloodshed in Kosovo, Bosnia and the Middle East has taught the world that societies must put aside ethnic-based hatreds and envision a future of mutual trust and coexistence. In the Northern Ireland peace accord, which calls for militant Catholics to begin disarming in exchange for a greater role in the Protestant-dominated country's government, each side must stop insisting it will take no further steps until the other goes first. His comments came during a fund-raising dinner on the Massachusetts island of Nantucket for the American Ireland Fund, which promotes peace in Northern Ireland.

"At some point," Clinton said, Northern Ireland's Protestant and Catholic leaders "are going to have to figure out a way that they're both trusting each other at the same time--so you get out of this 'You go first.' You know, it's like two kids standing on a big old diving board holding hands and looking down into a deep pool."

Clinton, joined at the dinner by his wife, is mixing work with pleasure as he starts a two-week vacation in Massachusetts and New York. He spent most of today golfing in Nantucket with Sen. John F. Kerry (D-Mass.) and others. He then changed into khakis, a blazer and a shirt without a tie to attend the Irish dinner and, later, a $1,000-per-person political fund-raiser at the Nantucket home of tobacco heir Smith W. Bagley and his wife, Elizabeth F. Bagley, former U.S. ambassador to Portugal. The Bagley event was for Hillary Rodham Clinton's exploratory bid for a U.S. Senate seat from New York.

At the Ireland event, the president credited himself for showing courage in promoting peace in the region and urged leaders there to cast off old ways of thinking. He reminded the audience that, despite resistance from many Protestant groups, he granted a U.S. visa in 1994 to Gerry Adams, leader of Sinn Fein, the political arm of the Irish Republican Army.

"I said, 'Well, if I don't do it, we're never going to get anybody off the dime over there,' " Clinton said.

Eventually, Northern Ireland voters approved the so-called Good Friday Accords. They call for IRA disarmament and a role for Sinn Fein in the nation's executive branch. Both of those initiatives have stalled, however, with the two parties trading accusations of bad faith.

"So we're back to the old trust issue," Clinton said, "because the [Protestant] Unionists don't want Sinn Fein in the executive until they have a symbolic act of decommissioning, and the IRA says, 'Well, we don't want to do that until we know we're not going to get snookered.' . . . You have to have leaders who can let go."

While Clinton golfed in the morning, his wife attended an event to raise money to restore the Nantucket United Methodist Church, built in 1823. The first lady said such preservation efforts are difficult but important. "We live in a real throwaway culture," she said.

CAPTION: Hillary Rodham Clinton greets the crowd after touring the Nantucket Athenaeum library.