Call to restart peace talks as IRA ceasefire begins: Hume urges the Government to pursue demand for clarification. David McKittrick reports

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The Independent Online
THE IRA's first non-Christmas ceasefire for two decades came into effect at midnight last night, amid political calls for both Gerry Adams and John Major to give fresh impetus to the apparently stalled peace process.

Loyalist groups indicated yesterday that they will not reciprocate to the IRA suspension, confirming security force assessments that the threat from the extreme Protestant groups remains high.

While republicans portray the 72- hour ceasefire as a significant move which demands a government reaction, most observers have characterised it as an inadequate response to recent initiatives by London and Dublin. Downing Street last night turned down a plea from John Hume, the leader of the SDLP, for a senior Conservative backbencher to approach the republicans about their demands for clarification of the Downing Street declaration.

Describing the ceasefire as a major opportunity, Mr Hume said a backbencher could say to Sinn Fein: 'Give us in writing what you want clarified and we will come back to you in writing. In that way no allegations can be made that verbal or secret deals were done, and it can be made clear that it's strictly on the grounds of clarification.' Last night, however, a government source said: 'We are not going to get involved in anything like this.'

While the suspension of IRA violence only officially came into effect at midnight, it is clear the organisation has been on virtual ceasefire since its plans for a stoppage were disclosed on 30 March. Since then, only two IRA attacks have been logged by the RUC, with no one killed or injured in either incident. Given that the IRA often stages several attacks daily, this represents a striking lull in its level of activity. The security forces can be expected to relax to some extent over the next few days, since in the past the IRA has strictly observed its declared ceasefires. But the terrorists have often marked the ending of ceasefires with an act of violence within hours of their expiry, and the Army and police will be braced for this on Friday.

There were many political calls yesterday for a longer ceasefire and, ideally, for a complete cessation to IRA violence.

Sinn Fein responded to a call from the moderator of the Presbyterian church in Ireland, Dr Andrew Rodgers, to spell out exactly what clarification they required. Its chairman, Tom Hartley, said they wanted to clear up ambiguous matters in the text of the Downing Street declaration, differences in the interpretation of it, and the steps which were envisaged to advance the peace process.

Speculation that Gerry Adams would have preferred a longer ceasefire than that declared by the IRA was strengthened by reports from Washington that the Sinn Fein president had briefed Irish- American figures that the 72-hour ceasefire 'did not come easily'.

But Andrew Hunter MP, chairman of the Conservative backbench committee on Northern Ireland, said: 'I think three days is derisory. Given a total cessation of violence, then in due course there can indeed be negotiations. That's what we want, but it's very dangerous to give ground to the men of violence.

'My views reflect the mainstream of the Conservative Party, and I think there is very grave concern that the Government might be drawn into negotiations with the IRA this side of the IRA having renounced violence, and we do not like that proposition.'