Major restates refusal of dialogue with Sinn Fein: 'Too short' ceasefire fails to break peace process impasse. David McKittrick and Colin Brown report

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JOHN MAJOR said last night that the IRA would be to blame for any resumption of violence after its temporary ceasefire, as he rejected a call for clarification of the Downing Street Declaration.

Responding to a letter from Gerry Adams, in which the Sinn Fein president asked for direct dialogue with the Government, one of Mr Major's officials quoted the declaration as saying dialogue would be available to parties committed to exclusively peaceful methods.

Mr Adams last night described it as 'evasive and wholly inadequate', claiming the IRA's three-day ceasefire - which ends at midnight tonight - represented an opportunity to end the present stalemate. Sinn Fein will not have been surprised by the lack of clarification, since it is generally accepted in Belfast that at this point it is politically impossible for any significant movement from Downing Street.

But an intriguing pointer to the possibility of subterranean contact with republicans taking place came when a Downing Street source did not directly deny loyalist allegations it might be going on. The source said: 'It only works with secrecy. We are not negotiating, nor are we offering clarification.'

Sinn Fein is still trying to promote itself as an organisation that wants to talk, but is being unaccountably shunned by an unreasonable British government.

Ever since the Downing Street declaration was published last December, the republicans have taken the position that they can give no definitive response until aspects of it are clarified by the Government. This tactic has been of considerable value to Sinn Fein, for there were clear indications the declaration had caught republicans on the hop. It quickly became evident much of the grassroots were not prepared to end violence on the strength of the declaration alone. Republican leaders almost certainly agreed with them, but were anxious to keep the peace process alive. They were also aware an outright rejection would have exposed the IRA and Sinn Fein to a new and possibly unprecedented degree of isolation.

So they handed down a verdict of not proven, or at least not yet, and have spent more than three months issuing almost daily calls for clarification. The tactic is now subject to the law of diminishing returns, but it is still useful in deflecting some of the pressure away from the republican camp.

Sinn Fein and the IRA are playing a long game, and the clarification argument has given them cover under which they have reduced public expectations of a short cut to the ending of republican violence.

The Irish government responded quite quickly to the republican calls. The Taoiseach, Albert Reynolds, has been writing to Mr Adams to answer his questions, and in speeches has spelt out in great detail the South's view of issues such as self-determination. Messages may also have been sent by other means.

The obvious worry is that such moves would tend to enhance the stature of Sinn Fein and ensure the party remains the focus of attention, as it has for many months. This does not appear to have happened, however, for several reasons.

The first is that Irish nationalists believe the republican groups are errant and immature bodies, which may be persuaded to evolve into proper, non-violent parties, ready to enter the political processes. Therefore, they tend to favour the tactic of trying to coax them along.

The second is that the British government itself set a precedent for contacts with republicans by communicating with them over the last three years. Thus, the argument runs, Mr Major's present refusal to contact them is based not on principle, but on a tactical calculation.

The third factor is that the credibility of Gerry Adams and Sinn Fein has taken a nosedive in recent weeks because of the attacks on Heathrow and the shortness of the present suspension of violence.

Republican sources now indicate that the Heathrow mortars were never meant to explode, saying the IRA did not want to take the chance of blowing up an aircraft and thus damage its own cause. With hindsight, the sequence of attacks was clearly planned to achieve maximum impact with minimum risk.

Yet, overall, this military coup was a political setback, wiping out many of the propaganda gains Mr Adams achieved in the United States and causing many in Ireland to question his capacity to deliver.

This week's short ceasefire was meant to make up some of this lost political ground by putting the ball back into the British government's court. But it looks to have been another miscalculation in that most observers regarded it as far too brief. Instead, the 72-hour stoppage has only posed more questions about the extent of Mr Adams's influence and the republican judgement of the real world.

No one knows what may be going on behind the scenes, but at the moment the ceasefire and the Government's rejection of it appear to have failed to move the process forward. The clarification issue remains unresolved. At the same time, the IRA is unlikely to declare another ceasefire in the absence of a significant response from the Government. The net effect seems to be continuing impasse.