IRA Ceasefire: Optimism tinged by spectre of a bloody nightmare: Donald Macintyre, Political Editor, interviews James Molyneaux, leader of the Ulster Unionists, about his concerns for the future

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JAMES MOLYNEAUX jokes cheerfully about the virulent attacks on him by his arch-rival Ian Paisley. The 74-year-old leader of the Ulster Unionists had been described as being as bad as Chamberlain. 'I'm disappointed. Last time he said I was like Judas Iscariot. Now I'm downgraded to be a mere politician,' he said.

In his Commons office last night, Mr Molyneaux was cautiously optimistic that the IRA may yet bridge the semantic gap between it and the Government. But he is still insistent that it needs to do more to show the cessation is permanent.

'It looks as if they're consciously or unconsciously moving towards paragraph 10 (the section of the Joint Declaration requiring a permanent end to and renunciation of violence). But what could be simpler than the author, Mr Reynolds, simply says to Gerry Adams: 'Do you agree with it?' It's no loss of face by anybody. It's not a case of arguing one little word or another. It's the entire little paragraph.'

The RUC Chief Constable and the Army General Officer Commanding, he says, have 'got the responsibility of trying to decide whether it's real or it isn't. There's too much doubt about it at the moment. If the IRA give them the assurance they need, then they can say we can safely reduce our surveillance, our patrol activities, everything else'.

Perhaps, he says, he is influenced by the breaking of the 1970s ceasefire when William Whitelaw was Secretary of State for Northern Ireland. A woman a few feet from him in Lenadoon Avenue in west Belfast was shot dead as the ceasefire was broken.

He believes, too, that such a step by Mr Reynolds and Mr Adams would lessen the risk of loyalist paramilitary action because 'there would be a degree of finality about it. They can't be certain any more than the security chiefs that there won't be a sudden surprise resumption of terrorism'. Something, he says, which could just lead to a 'nightmare scenario' in which deaths could run into 'three figures . . .'

He had been assured that very day that '85 per cent' of the loyalist paramilitaries are remaining calm, not least, he says, because of his own political lead. He has told his informant, someone with knowledge of the paramilitaries: 'I'm not in the business of selling out my friends and my friends are the majority of the people of Northern Ireland, regardless of religion.'

'But if necessary I would feel that I had a responsibility to reassure them that in spite of all these allegations that I had not sold them out, that I had no intention of selling them out. Furthermore, I think they would listen to that. You can imagine the effect all these claims of sell-out (he doesn't mention Mr Paisley here) have on a 20-year-old on the fringes of the paramilitaries. He thinks, 'I'd better get a bit of hardware hadn't I?' That's why, whatever risk it might mean, I would feel I had a duty to say to them: I know of no sell-out, I am not a party to any sell-out, because that happens to be true.'

He had originally proposed a five-year quarantine period before the gunmen would be brought out of the political shadows. How did he feel about a period of three months? Well, he 'would have liked it a bit later than that'. But he believes the question he has constantly been asked - whether he would sit down with Gerry Adams in round-table talks - is based on a false premise.

He appears to envisage, perhaps optimistically, something akin to the process that took place under Jim Prior in 1982, a series of bilateral talks between the Government and each of the parties, including Sinn Fein, who begin by talking to 'junior civil servants' as the three-month period draws to a close, leading directly to elections for a Northern Ireland assembly.

And he has no more problem sitting in the same chamber as Mr Adams as he would have done if the latter had taken his West Belfast seat, or he did with Bernadette Devlin and Frank MacManus, two republican MPs who came into the House with him in 1970.

But on the idea that prisoners might be released before ending their sentences, Mr Molyneaux is entirely adamant: 'Why don't you let out rapists if you let out people who have murdered six people? Why keep in child molesters when you are letting out people who have set off a bomb which has killed 12 people?'

The broadcasting ban on Sinn Fein now 'looks ludicrous' he says, 'because the Home Office has sabotaged its own legislation by its own regulations'. But he would clearly regard it as deeply inflammatory to lift it before the Government is assured the ceasefire is permanent.

The fact is that yesterday's prisoner transfer, swiftly condemned by his party as 'crass stupidity' could not have come at worse time. The Unionist population - professional middle class as well as blue collar - has already been 'unhinged' by the endless leaks which he believes are inspired by Dublin that there is already a secret deal - which is confident there is not - between London and Dublin, because of the endless false cries of 'sell out' and because of the continual wall-to-wall diet of Gerry Adams on television in the past few days. With a wry smile, he says: 'Churchill always said you listen to one bulletin a day. That's enough for everybody.'