Hope of renewed Irish ceasefire fades

Unionists talk down optimism by nationalists. David McKittrick reports
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The Independent Online
Irish nationalist optimism that a renewed IRA ceasefire might be on the cards yesterday stood in stark contrast to pessimistic assessments from sources within the Government, security cir- cles and the Ulster Unionists.

The SDLP leader John Hume raised hopes in a series of interviews by declaring that a major opportunity existed to achieve lasting peace. But on the security side, sources said their indications were that the IRA was now preparing for further violence.

These varying critiques, apart from reflecting a huge cultural and political gap between Westminster and Ulster, have created two different schools of thought. One is that another ceasefire is only a matter of time, and could well come before Christmas; the other is that the future holds just war.

Sinn Fein leaders said that a package of "reasonable and realistic" proposals had been conveyed to John Major six weeks ago. But the outlook from the Government side was one of heavy scepticism concerning republican intentions.

Reportedly, Mr Major will soon issue a statement responding to the republicans' proposition, and clarify, in response to a Unionist request, the issue of how Sinn Fein could gain entry to the peace talks. According to Unionist sources, Mr Major was asked by the Ulster Unionist leader David Trimble to spell this out when the two met in London last week. Unionist sources insisted that there was no basis for a report that a deal had been done involving Mr Trimble promising support for the Government in a vote of no confidence.

Mr Trimble yesterday said the chances of a new IRA ceasefire were extremely remote: "The current talk of peace is merely camouflage behind which their preparations for violence advance," he said. But Mr Hume said: "I believe a restoration of the ceasefire is very possible if there is a statement from the British government making very clear that the talks process is a serious process." He added that the proposals forwarded to the Government contained "nothing revolutionary".

The SDLP leader also warned that it would be a serious mistake "if there were political games being played because of the numbers game at Westminster".

On Saturday, more than 300 Sinn Fein delegates debated "conflict resolution" issues at an all-day meeting in Athboy, Co Meath, in the Irish Republic. Before the meeting Sinn Fein's Martin McGuinness said he would move "heaven and earth" to ensure there was a peaceful climate for any negotiations.

Afterwards, he and other republican leaders insisted the initiative lay with Mr Major and called on the Prime Minister to respond to their proposals.