Loyalists match IRA ceasefire: Unconditional promise to lay down arms increases pressure on Government to speed the peace process

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NORTHERN Ireland came a step closer to peace yesterday after loyalist paramilitary groups followed the example of the IRA and announced a ceasefire from midnight. Their declaration means that for the first time in 25 years of conflict all the major paramilitary groups have promised to give up violence.

The illegal loyalist groups - the Ulster Volunteer Force, Ulster Defence Association and Red Hand Commando - took observers by surprise by attaching no conditions to their cessation of violence. Further surprise, and even shock, came from the fact that they expressed 'abject and true remorse' for all deaths of innocent victims. The expression of such sentiments amounts to an unprecedentedly magnanimous gesture from groups that have taken 900 lives in the 25 years of the province's troubles.

The IRA voiced no such sentiment when it declared its cessation of military operations at the end of August. The loyalist move produced widespread praise and a welcome from almost all sections of the political spectrum. Cardinal Cahal Daly described the expression of remorse as courageous and admirable.

In Northern Ireland there was great relief, especially in Catholic districts, that a loyalist campaign which has continued in a minor key during the IRA ceasefire was finally coming to an end. But right up until the last minute the security forces remained on guard: one nationalist politician who left his security door open during the evening was advised by police to keep it bolted until midnight.

The loyalist move is the second major breakthrough in the peace process, following the IRA ceasefire. It will cause discreet celebrations in both London and Dublin, but it will also increase pressure on the Government to quicken the process.

Senior ministers indicated last night that the Government would hold talks with Sinn Fein before Christmas. Northern Ireland officials will begin the talks, under the Downing Street Declaration. One of the first issues they will discuss will be the question of what should happen to the IRA and loyalist arms caches. Ministers are keen not to let that prove a stumbling block to political progress.

At the Tory party conference in Bournemouth, John Major welcomed the ceasefire as 'unalloyed good news'. Although he emphasised the need for caution, the Prime Minister signalled that the Government was close to making the 'working assumption' that the ceasefires were permanent.

Sir Patrick Mayhew, Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, said Mr Major would make clear in his keynote speech today that 'he wants this to press ahead as soon as possible'.

Confirmation that Sinn Fein and the loyalists have met the terms of the Downing Street Declaration is expected after a meeting of the Northern Ireland Committee on Tuesday and the full Cabinet on Thursday. It is expected to be endorsed in a Commons debate on 26 October.

Albert Reynolds, the Irish Prime Minister, urged Mr Major to move quickly. The two prime ministers will hold a summit, probably in mid- November, and in December are expected to publish a framework document under which there would be detailed talks involving the two governments and political parties in Northern Ireland. These talks would take at least two years and final proposals would be put to a referendum in the province.

Yesterday's announcement carries the clear implication that extreme Protestants believe the IRA ceasefire is genuine. Sinn Fein has called on Mr Major to 'stop fumbling' with the peace process and move it forward.

The Rev Ian Paisley, leader of the Democratic Unionist Party, gave the ceasefire a noticeably cool reaction, saying he would wait to assess its full significance. Mainstream unionists in the Ulster Unionist Party were more welcoming.

Spokesmen for two fringe groupings close to the UVF and UDA, the Progressive Unionist and Ulster Democratic parties, made clear that their approach would be more flexible than that of the mainstream Unionist parties.

(Photograph omitted)