'Clarification' simply adds more questions for Major

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THE GOVERNMENT's latest version of its policy on contacts with republicans will be received with much scepticism by almost all shades of opinion in Ireland, north and south.

The belief was already widespread among Unionists and nationalists alike that some section of the British administration had been in touch with Sinn Fein or the IRA, partly because there is such a long history of contacts.

Last night's statement from the Northern Ireland Office will be seen as confirming what was already believed: that, despite the numerous emphatic denials, surreptitious talks had taken place.

Unionist MPs have been saying for some months that talks had been held, and republican leaders, including the Sinn Fein president, Gerry Adams, confirmed several times that this was the case.

On Friday night the Ulster Unionist leader, James Molyneaux, in a reference to an impending newspaper story, warned his supporters 'not to jump to conclusions'. Mr Molyneaux - who has a close voting arrangement with the Conservative party - had apparently already been briefed about the Northern Ireland Office statement.

The statement admitting such contacts was not issued in any spirit of open government, but in response to a continuing wave of media speculation. In particular, it was produced after a Sunday newspaper printed a secret British document giving instructions to an 'interlocutor'.

The document indicated that the interlocutor's instructions had been personally approved by the Northern Ireland Secretary, Sir Patrick Mayhew, who has repeatedly asserted in recent weeks that no one had been speaking to republicans on behalf of the Government. Last night the Northern Ireland Office statement did not deny that Sir Patrick had been personally involved in the exercise.

The statement raises points that the Government will certainly be pressed to clarify in the coming week. It says that at the end of February a message was passed on to the Government from the IRA leadership 'to the effect that the conflict was over but they needed our advice as to the means of bringing it to a close'.

The IRA, however, has shown no public sign of believing the conflict was over. IRA violence in Northern Ireland continued unabated, while in Britain the Warrington bombing, in which two children were killed, happened on 20 March. The devastating Bishopgate bombing in the City of London took place on 24 April.

A week ago, Mr Adams, in an Irish newspaper interview, denied that the IRA wanted to surrender. He said: 'Nothing could be further from the truth. The capacity of republicans to engage in struggle is totally undaunted. If the IRA wanted to surrender then they would simply surrender.'

The Northern Ireland Office statement does not explain why the IRA, if it wanted to end the conflict unilaterally, did not respond to the Government 'advice' by calling off its campaign. The statement implies that only one contact was made with the IRA. Mr Adams's version of events, however, is that Sinn Fein held 'protracted negotiations' with British government representatives. A series of documents are said to have been exchanged.

The document published today mentions the start of a process and appears to indicate that the Government was prepared to maintain contact while violence continued, stating: 'It must be recognised that all acts of violence hereafter could only enhance these difficulties and risks, quite conceivably to the point when the process would be destroyed.' The secret document mentions 'Annex C', suggesting that a substantial amount of documentation was involved.

Mr Adams has said the process went on for several months and ended in June, when it became apparent that Mr Major might have to rely on Unionist votes in the Maastricht votes.

The existence of so much documentation lends considerable weight to Mr Adams's description of protracted negotiations rather than the IRA seeking the Government's advice on ending the conflict.

One thing is certain: both Unionists and nationalists will tend to accept the word of the Sinn Fein president rather than that of the Government.

Timetable of events

FEBRUARY: IRA approaches Government.

20 MARCH: Warrington bomb. Two children killed and 56 people injured when two IRA bombs explode in crowded market.

MARCH and JUNE: High-level IRA-Government contact.

24 APRIL: Bishopsgate bomb. One man killed and more than 40 injured in financial centre of London.

OCTOBER/NOVEMBER: Government consistently denies IRA contacts. On 15 November John Major says: 'There can be no secret deals' with IRA. Less than two weeks ago Sir Patrick Mayhew says: 'There have been no talks on behalf of the British Government with Sinn Fein.'

27 NOVEMBER: Government admits IRA links.