But there were also strengthening indications in Whitehall that ministers are agreed in principle to lift the broadcasting ban on Sinn Fein while keeping in reserve a decision on the timing of the move.
Ministers endorsed the strong view of Sir Patrick Mayhew, the Secretary of State, that the ban was now counter-productive and should be lifted as soon as the move could be justified to the Unionist majority in Northern Ireland. Mr Major is expected to visit Northern Ireland shortly.
In a decision endorsed by members of the Northern Ireland sub-committee yesterday, Mr Major responded to the sensibilities of Unionist leaders by judging that the moment had not yet arrived to issue a public acceptance that the IRA cessation of violence was permanent.
The Northern Ireland Office is understood to have advised last week that the joint statement by Albert Reynolds, the Irish prime minister, John Hume, leader of the SDLP and Gerry Adams, the president of Sinn Fein - affirming commitment to the democratic process - had provided an opportunity to issue a response opening the way to exploratory talks between Sinn Fein within three months. But Mr Major's gradualist approach, with officials acknowledging that the process was still 'edging forward', appears to have been endorsed without argument at yesterday's meeting.
There were signs that even on the Unionist right of the Tory party, opposition to the lifting of the broadcasting ban was gradually easing. Andrew Hunter, chairman of the backbench Northern Ireland committee, said last night that the Government had been right not to lift the ban up to now. But he added: 'The time may soon come when it is right to lift the ban - but this must be done on its own merits, when the Government - not Sinn Fein - judges it right.'
Although Irish officials reacted calmly last night to the Cabinet decision, Mr Reynolds had hinted strongly that prolonged hesitation could delay an end to loyalist paramilitary violence. 'It's a chicken and egg situation. It has been said 'Why should the loyalist paramilitaries make a decision when the British government haven't made their decision?'
'We all have a responsibility to make a contribution to consolidating the peace process. The Irish government have moved.' Mr Reynolds said the loyalists were entitled to time and he was not setting deadlines. 'We have a historical opportunity for peace. We shouldn't do anything that would in any way undermine the peace process,' he told BBC Radio 4's The World at One.
Mr Adams yesterday accused Mr Major of 'trawling for excuses' to avoid accepting the IRA ceasefire, saying the Prime Minister was failing to grasp a unique and historic opportunity for peace, writes David McKittrick. He said Mr Major's attitude was 'a bit bizarre' since he had earlier been in protracted dialogue and contact with Sinn Fein while the IRA campaign had been continuing.Reuse content