He said that a majority in the republican movement favoured the ending of the IRA campaign, although he expected paramilitary organisations would switch to simple crime rather than disband.
His predictions will lend weight to rumours that an IRA ceasefire of some kind could emerge shortly. Sinn Fein and the IRA have repeatedly delayed giving a definitive response to last December's Downing Street Declaration. Republican sources, in contrast to Sir Hugh's optimism, are not encouraging speculation about a ceasefire.
However, the republican movement is under considerable pressure and its leaders will be aware that a move of some sort will have to be made if the peace process is to retain credibility. Sinn Fein has announced a special delegate conference to be held shortly, though no date has been set. The party's ard-comhairle (executive) is to meet to formulate a proposal which the meeting will be invited to endorse.
In another hopeful assessment, the Chief Constable said that he believed loyalist groups would also end their terrorist activity if the IRA campaign ended and if they believed no 'sell-out' was planned. Again, however, he predicted a move by elements on that side into racketeering and drugs.
John Major has ruled out any involvement for loyalist paramilitary groups in talks about Northern Ireland's future, even if they end their campaign of violence. The Prime Minister said in a letter to Peter Robinson, deputy leader of the Democratic Unionist Party, that they could not be invited to talks because, unlike Sinn Fein, they had no electoral mandate.
Sir Hugh gave his assessments, which he said were based on intelligence reports and analysis, at a news conference marking publication of the RUC's annual report.
He believed the republican movement had, in the course of a widespread debate, discussed both a temporary ceasefire and a complete cessation of violence, but neither was certain to happen. Factors influencing the republicans included law enforcement, political developments and a decline in their American influence.
'I think they'd like peace. Naturally they'd like peace on their terms, but I think genuinely they are considering it, yes. I suspect that those within the movement who are genuinely looking at peace as the way forward, I suspect that on balance theirs is the majority view.'
He believed the debate had been largely forced upon the republicans by the Downing Street Declaration. 'There are shades of opinion within the movement: those who would say, 'We won't touch it at any price,' and those who would probably say, 'Yes, let's go for it.' I think the way forward lies perhaps somewhere between the two, and I think they will be looking to see how they can encourage the members of the republican movement that peace is in fact the way forward. I think it will continue to be a long process.'
Asked how the security forces would react to a three-month ceasefire, Sir Hugh said his force policed in accordance with the threat that faced it day to day. If the risk facing it in a particular area was reduced, there could be an end of army patrols and a reduction in police patrols. He added that if violence ended, the Emergency Provisions Act, the main anti-terrorist legislation, would not need to continue.
The signs are that the special Sinn Fein conference is still some weeks away. The decision to call it is most unusual: the last is believed to have taken place in the early 1970s and produced the split between the Provisional and Official IRA. One school of thought has it that the delays, and the conference, are meant to acclimatise outside opinion to the fact that the IRA campaign is not about to stop. Others think the conference is an indicator that some highly significant development is in prospect.Reuse content