Calling for an immediate ceasefire, he accused Sinn Fein of vote-stealing, intimidation of SDLP workers and declaring: "Having availed of our good faith as honest brokers, they now intend to cast us aside using any means, fair or foul."
While Mr Hume did not personalise his criticisms on Sinn Fein president Gerry Adams, his criticisms of Sinn Fein - as distinct from the IRA, whose violence he has roundly condem- ned - were his sharpest for a number of years. The "Hume-Adams" relationship, which has developed during the 1990s into close co-operation on the peace process, has considerably toned the two parties' public exchanges.
All the signs are that the Hume-Adams association, by which is meant the efforts of the two leaders to advance the peace process, will remain in being, since the two leaders regard it as transcending conventional party politics. But it is clear that, at least for the election campaign, the gloves are off.
Mr Hume's criticisms, contained in a lengthy article in the Belfast Irish News, seem to reflect both electoral concerns and his dismay that the IRA is clearly intent on more violence during the election campaign.
The SDLP has been under pressure in some constituencies to reach an agreement with Sinn Fein in order to remove Unionist MPs who hold their seats by virtue of a split nationalist vote.
Mr Hume said: "To make an electoral pact with Sinn Fein without an IRA ceasefire would be the equivalent of asking our voters to support the killing of innocent human beings by the IRA. The electorate should be aware that in voting for Sinn Fein that is what they are voting for: Sinn Fein call it the armed struggle."
Martin McGuinness of Sinn Fein responded by claiming that some leading figures in the SDLP "are frightened out of their wits that Sinn Fein will do really well in the coming election". Mr McGuinness himself is thought to have a fair chance of winning the Mid-Ulster seat, while Mr Adams is regarded as favourite to win West Belfast from the SDLP. In the last election Sinn Fein's vote went up while the SDLP's dropped.
But apart from the immediate electoral considerations, Mr Hume's words will generate speculation that he is losing faith in the ability of Mr Adams to deliver a fresh IRA cessation of violence. His article closed with the words: "This cannot go on .... Without a ceasefire we are going to have to look elsewhere for a means of making progress."
Although it is not immediately obvious what alternative courses are open to the SDLP, this will be taken as an unmistakeable indication that general nationalist patience with Sinn Fein is growing thin.
t The parents of a soldier who was shot and killed by an IRA sniper yesterday made an impassioned plea to the terrorists to call a ceasefire and make their son's death the last.
John and Rita Restorick made their emotional appeal for peace in an open letter to politicians including John Major, US President Bill Clinton, Labour leader Tony Blair, Irish premier John Bruton, and Sinn Fein leader Gerry Adams.
Their son, Lance Bombardier Stephen Restorick, 23, was killed by a sniper's bullet last Tuesday as he stopped cars at an army check-point in south Armagh. His funeral service will take place on 24 February.
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