Cautious steps to a loyalist ceasefire: Paramilitaries' declaration means Northern Ireland faces best hope of peace since 1969. David McKittrick reports

AFTER all the years of apparent stagnation, momentous events are becoming almost regular occurrences in Northern Ireland. The latest, the declaration of a ceasefire by loyalist paramilitary groups expected this morning, will be greeted as yet another memorable step towards what will hopefully be a lasting peace.

Following the IRA cessation of 31 August, the announcement will mean that all the major paramilitary groups have said they are ending their campaigns of violence. There has never been such a moment since the troubles began in 1969. Loyalist violence has continued on a reduced level since the IRA ceasefire. There have been no fatalities for some weeks.

With the IRA maintaining its ceasefire for six weeks without major incident, it has been obvious that there is no rational basis for loyalist violence to go on in the absence of a republican campaign. None the less, loyalist leaders have moved cautiously to ensure that various important elements approved of a ceasefire.

The IRA ceasefire initially caused a wave of nervousness in loyalist districts, with fears that a secret deal had been done between the republicans and the British Government. But tensions quickly subsided as no signs of a deal emerged, and as the days and weeks passed without IRA bombings and shootings.

Sources close to the Ulster Volunteer Force gave broad hints that the organisation was moving towards a ceasefire but there were many worries about the Ulster Defence Association, which has a younger and more militant leadership. One early, markedly belligerent, statement from the UDA declared that the 'phoney so-called peace process' was a recipe for civil war rather than an historic opportunity for a settlement.

In recent weeks the impression has been widespread that the UVF has been gradually persuading the UDA that a halt should be called sooner rather than later. One key factor was this week's meeting in the Maze prison between UDA leaders and representatives of jailed UDA members. One inmate is a former member of the organisation's ruling inner council, who is known as a particularly militant activist: reports that the meeting went well are assumed to mean that he has given his assent to a cessation.

The loyalists are less disciplined than the IRA and have a less centralised structure, many groups operating with a large measure of autonomy. The authorities will be watching closely to see whether all the gangs involved accept the direction to observe the ceasefire.

The culture of paramilitarism and underground groups is so deeply ingrained in Northern Irish culture that no one expects such groups to disappear overnight. In addition, few expect that the organisations will accede to the Government's requests to hand in their weapons; or that their leaders will meekly disband their financial structures and resign themselves to life on the dole. It is further not clear whether they will end the paramilitary 'policing' of their ghetto strongholds, which has taken the form of beatings and kneecappings.

None the less, the ending of their killing campaign will be seen as a giant step forward.

Loyalist groups have killed more than 150 people over the past four years, and since the troubles began they have been responsible for about 900 deaths, most victims being working-class Catholic civilians. The fact that more than 600 of the deaths have been in Belfast indicates the heavy toll the city's Catholic ghettos have had to bear: there will be great relief in those areas when it is accepted that loyalist gangs are no longer on the rampage.

It will take some time to confirm this. As recently as June, UVF gunmen killed six Catholics at Loughinisland, Co Down, in an indiscriminate shooting attack on a pub.

The loyalist ceasefire will make it easier for the Government to give the long- awaited formal signal that it regards the IRA cessation as genuine. This is likely to take place once the Conservative Party conference is out of the way.

Various nationalist elements, including the Irish government, have made it clear they believe that more momentum should be injected into the peace process. The loyalist ceasefire, and the expected government acknowledgement of the IRA cessation, may help to accelerate the pace of events.