British reply puts ball in IRA's court

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The Independent Online
The Government's publication yesterday of detailed answers to a series of Sinn Fein questions about the Downing Street Declaration was seen as a serious step in the Irish peace process.

Sinn Fein will take some weeks to respond to what was interpreted as an attempt to break the impasse that has held up the process at a time of rising violence.

Predictions that the responses to Sinn Fein would amount to a brush-off proved unfounded. Many of the republicans' concerns were treated seriously, though there was no weakening of the Government's stand of refusing negotiations in advance of a cessation of IRA violence.

The responses emphasised the principle of majority consent in Northern Ireland. The document underlined that a referendum, as provided for in 1973 legislation, would be used if necessary to decide the views of Ulster people on any changes to the province's constitutional status. But it also acknowledged that Sinn Fein's vote gave the party an electoral mandate, and spelt out that the republicans would be free to place any issue on the table after a cessation.

The document maintained the united front between the Dublin and London governments and puts the ball in the IRA and Sinn Fein court. Irish government sources said they regarded the responses as a constructive effort to break the present logjam.

The Taoiseach, Albert Reynolds, said: 'I believe it should clear the way to help move the peace process forward.'

Labour's Northern Ireland spokesman, Kevin McNamara, said Sinn Fein could no longer use the clarification issue as an excuse to support the use of violence.

The document was also welcomed by the Ulster Unionist leader, James Molyneaux, but the Democratic Unionist leader, Ian Paisley, described it as a '21-page love letter to Gerry Adams'.

British officials pointed out that only one of the 20 Sinn Fein questions - on the definition of the 'greater number' of Northern Ireland people who would determine Ulster's future - arose explicitly out of the declaration.

Whitehall sources said they could envisage no circumstances in which they would answer further questions on the text. Sir Patrick Mayhew, Secratary of State for Northern Ireland, said there would be 'no secret discussions' on yesterday's document.

A 30-year-old man will appear in court today charged with directing terrorism and membership of the Ulster Freedom Fighters, following widespread arrests across loyalist areas of Belfast by police and troops on Monday.