IRA calls a truce - now the hard work begins

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Renewed hopes for a lasting peace were hedged with caution in Northern Ireland yesterday as the IRA announced a renewal of its August 1994 ceasefire with effect from noon today.

British government contact with Sinn Fein, the IRA's political wing, which was severed after the IRA murders of two policemen in Lurgan last month, is likely to be resumed almost immediately. The Northern Ireland Secretary, Mo Mowlam, is likely to meet the Sinn Fein president, Gerry Adams, before the end of the week.

But although the Provisionals announced that their cessation of hostilities would be "unequivocal", the sense of spontaneous celebration which greeted the 1994 ceasefire was absent from the streets of Belfast. The bloody end to that truce, with the February 1996 bomb in London's Docklands which killed two people and caused pounds 400m worth of damage, and the succeeding campaign of violence, have had a chastening effect on Ulster people and politicians.

The ceasefire means that Sinn Fein will be allowed entry to the multi- party political negotiations when they open in Belfast on 15 September. While this will in itself be unprecedented, it could throw the talks themselves into crisis since there is a strong chance that the main Protestant party, David Trimble's Ulster Unionists, may pull out if Sinn Fein comes in without guarantees on arms decommissioning.

The new Labour Government has moved towards Sinn Fein over the question of arms, and is no longer insisting - as did John Major and the previous Tory government - that weapons must be surrendered before substantial negotiations on the province's future can take place.

This places Mr Trimble in a very difficult position: if he takes part in the talks he faces the accusation of selling out to the IRA from more hardline unionists, such as the Democratic Unionist party of Ian Paisley and Peter Robinson - but if he walks out he will be labelled the wrecker of the peace process.

Peter Robinson said yesterday: "We are not prepared to sit down with the IRA while they refuse to call a permanent cessation of violence. If the Ulster Unionists want to go down that road, we will rally the country. We will take that message to the people of Northern Ireland. Any leader of the Ulster Unionists who is determined to go down that road would find quickly that his party is going in another direction."

Mr Robinson refused to be drawn on tactics the DUP would employ, but his warning that they would "take the message to every part of Northern Ireland" suggests a Drumcree-style backlash could not be ruled out.

Tomorrow, Tony Blair will begin what is now the Government's top priority: to keep Mr Trimble on board the peace train. The Prime Minister will assure him that a body to oversee the handover of weapons will be in place well ahead of inclusive talks. General John De Chastelain, Canadian member of the Mitchell commission on arms decommissioning, is likely to be appointed as head of the group.

In Dublin the Taoiseach, Bertie Ahern, said he believed the ceasefire would be permanent. He added: "The word 'permanent' is what we understand it to be. I think an unequivocal restoration of the ceasefire is the important matter. I would certainly interpret it as being permanent."

Republican sources characterised the move as "another chance" following on from the 1994-96 cessation. Gerry Adams said he believed Mr Blair could succeed where John Major had failed: "I would like to encourage him as Prime Minister to usher in a new relationship between the people of his island and mine. I think John Major failed and that was just our bad luck, but I think Tony Blair can succeed."

John Hume, leader of the moderate-nationalist SDLP, said he had appealed to the IRA "to end their campaign, and they have now done that".

Mr Hume said that Wednesday, when Unionists had to agree to the decommissioning agreement drawn up by London and Dublin, "would be a key day". There are fears on the nationalist side that unionist parties will use misgivings about disarming the IRA as a means of avoiding talks with Sinn Fein. "But where in the world have you solved a conflict by asking people to surrender in advance?" asked the SDLP leader. "Every major political party in Ireland was founded on guns. They didn't hand them over. They just got rid of them."

n President Clinton hailed the IRA's decision, saying the United States would work to nurture this "moment of great possibility".

"This declaration, which we expect to be implemented unequivocally and permanently, can open the door to inclusive negotiations to achieve a just and lasting settlement," he said in a White House statement.