The senior Sinn Fein republican Martin McGuinness demanded direct negotiations between republicans and the British and Irish governments as Sinn Fein sought clarification of the Major-Reynolds declaration.
Mr McGuinness declared flatly: 'One thing that people can be assured of is that there will be an amnesty for the political prisoners.' Both London and Dublin have ruled that out.
The IRA ceasefire began at midnight last night and is to last until midnight on Sunday. In past years the police and Army have taken the IRA at its word and have greatly relaxed security.
Downing Street sharply attacked the ceasefire announcement. A spokesman said: 'Christmas is a time for peace. It should be a lasting peace, not just a temporary lull in the killing. The people of Northern Ireland want a permanent cessation of violence, not just a ceasefire.'
One hope earlier this month had been that the Downing Street Declaration would put the IRA under pressure to announce an extended ceasefire this year. But the IRA has not responded at all to the declaration and apparently wishes to send the message that it is unimpressed with it and sees no reason so far to depart from business as usual. In the meantime, Sinn Fein has still said neither yes nor no.
In an interview with the Derry Journal Mr McGuinness said: 'We see it as a beginning. We are prepared to look positively at this declaration but there is ambiguity and confusion that would need to be cleared up. It remains to be seen if the British government will play a positive role or continue to mount roadblocks and barriers to this process.'
In his interview Mr McGuinness restated the republican position in language of a bluntness which most of his colleagues have conspicuously refrained from employing in recent months. This seemed to leave little doubt that Sinn Fein was not budging from its traditional approach.
He said: 'Our position is that we want to see a British disengagement from Ireland. That's always been our position. We would like to see a 32-county republic. We make no apology to anybody for that - that will always be the position for Sinn Fein. But we recognise that in a changed situation, in which the British government changes its relationship with this island and disengages, we are but a small percentage of the overall island.
'At the end of the day we are prepared to accept the democratic wish of the majority of the people of this island, acting without interference from any greater power, be that the British government or anyone else.'
The republican tactic will be to deflate, as gently as possible, the hope that an IRA cessation of violence could be in the immediate offing. At the same time, they will repeat the calls for clarification, hoping that the British government will come to seem unreasonable for refusing.
Sinn Fein yesterday sought to make political capital of the acquittal of two soldiers on charges of murdering a Sinn Fein member, Fergal Caraher, in south Armagh three years ago. The party chairman, Tom Hartley, said: 'This verdict points up the contradiction in John Major's denial of amnesty for political prisoners. As with all these cases there is an amnesty for members of the British crown forces.'
The debate on the declaration and the moves for peace is likely to intensify in both republican and loyalist circles in the coming week with the release on Christmas parole of 446 prisoners. One hundred of those enjoying the traditional break are serving life sentences, most of them for murder.
Verdict attacked, page 4