Flickers of hope amid wavering peace process: David McKittrick looks at the mood of the republican movement as the early optimism is replaced by realism

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ALTHOUGH the pace has slowed to a crawl, there are indications that what is known as the Irish peace process still has momentum and that the Sinn Fein leadership wishes to keep it alive.

However, the idea that the Downing Street declaration would by itself be enough to generate an end to IRA violence has gone. This realisation has served to dispel much of the wave of optimism which was apparent late last year, when some spoke of the possibility of peace before Christmas.

Since then, Sinn Fein has successfully lowered expectations of an early ceasefire. Disillusionment has gripped many quarters as the early hopes faded and violence has continued. However, the violence has been at a lower level - something that in itself represents, from a republican perspective, a significant concession.

Sinn Fein has had some success in switching the debate away from the central question of whether peace is or is not at hand to the less vital issue of whether the British Government should provide clarification of the declaration. Most Irish nationalist observers believe that Mr Major has impaled himself on a hook in refusing to clarify the declaration.

Meanwhile, there are signs that the reaction from the republican grassroots has been more negative than the Sinn Fein leadership had expected. Reliable information from within the republican movement is notoriously difficult to obtain, but the preference of Gerry Adams, the Sinn Fein president, appears to be to move towards accepting the declaration as a basis for negotiation.

Mr Adams and his closest supporters regard themselves as being involved in a long-term negotiation with the Government, which is being conducted at long range for the moment. Many observers believe his long-term goal is the demilitarisation of republicanism and a switch to pursuing its aims by non-violent means.

Some sections of the republican grass roots do not appear to share this aim, adhering to the IRA belief that the campaign of violence will eventually bring something close to outright victory. These sections suspect the declaration is simply British trickery.

Mr Adams will be aware of the dangers of a split in the ranks. At its worst, a split would leave a weakened but still functioning IRA in place, commanded by straight militarists. He is now concentrating on delaying the definitive Sinn Fein reaction to the declaration. Optimists will hope his aim is that a continuing debate within republicanism may soften the originally negative response.