Major in secret link to Sinn Fein

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A secret channel of communication has been established between the British Government and the republican movement involving the SDLP leader John Hume.

The revelation, in the Dublin Sunday Tribune, was followed by statements from the Government and Sinn Fein which conspicuously refrained from denying that such a channel existed.

Later, two sources involved confirmed that a conduit existed between the republicans and London, even though no IRA ceasefire has been in existence since February last. It appears to have survived even the double IRA car bomb attack on the army's Northern Ireland headquarters early last month.

Government involvement in such communication will come as little surprise to observers of the peace process which resulted in the August 1994 IRA ceasefire, since that saga featured a web of internecine contacts.

One problem now for the Government takes the form of an immediate political constraint on its freedom of manoeuvre. It is anxious to keep alive the continuing political talks at Stormont, yet it is clear that Sinn Fein's entry into the talks, in the event of an IRA ceasefire, could well trigger a walkout by the mainstream Unionist parties.

The present channel appears to be on a similar model as the initial peace process, with Sinn Fein president Gerry Adams and Mr Hume attempting to devise a British Government form of words which would lead towards an IRA ceasefire. The Irish government and the Clinton administration are understood to be aware of this process.

The Government is said to want an IRA assurance that any new cessation would be permanent; if not, there would be a three-month waiting period before Sinn Fein would be allowed into the Stormont talks. London also wants an end to IRA "punishment beatings".

The republican priority is to secure immediate entry to the Stormont talks, together with a request that a time frame should be set for the duration of the negotiations. Republicans are adamant that "no new preconditions" should be set for their entry into talks.

Reconciling the concerns of the two sides is clearly a daunting task. Some of those involved complained yesterday that the public disclosure of the contacts and the glare of publicity would further limit everyone's room for manoeuvre.

Some of these points were touched on in a government statement yesterday which said: "If a new IRA ceasefire were declared we have made clear that we would need to look very carefully at what was being said and what was happening on the ground.

"It would obviously take time to establish that any ceasefire was genuinely unequivocal. As we have said many times, after the murderous attacks we have seen there could be no question of the IRA declaring a ceasefire one day and Sinn Fein joining the talks the next."

Both the Government and Sinn Fein yesterday specified that there had been no meetings between them. Sinn Fein said Gerry Adams and John Hume had since the beginning of the year been attempting to reconstruct the peace process and put a process of negotiation in place.

Mr Hume said yesterday: "I have been saying for some time that I have maintained contact with Gerry Adams with the objective of restoring the ceasefire. You can take it for granted that if I am trying to restore a ceasefire I am keeping both governments informed of what I am doing."