Ministers weigh their words on IRA ceasefire: Desire to maintain peace momentum tempered by need for caution. Donald Macintyre reports

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The Independent Online
CABINET ministers are considering a qualified response to the IRA ceasefire which will sustain the momentum of the peace process but make it clear that it can be reversed at any time if the threat of violence returns.

In the absence of the clear statement that he sought from Gerry Adams, Sinn Fein's president, that the cessation was permanent, John Major remains cautious about an unconditional promise of talks with Sinn Fein.

But a full review of the series of statements made by Sinn Fein spokesmen after this week's Tory conference is expected to result in a decision to signify that ministers are now willing to work on the basis that the ceasefire is permanent, holding out the firm prospect of talks within three peaceful months. The move could also be followed by the early removal of the exclusion order banning Mr Adams from the mainland.

It is not yet clear whether this would require the completion of a further three-month 'quarantine' period before bilateral talks between Sinn Fein and government officials would begin. But provided there is no sign of a renewed terrorist threat it could mean talks by Christmas, or the end of January at the very latest.

According to present thinking, the response would be at a lower level than it would have been if Sinn Fein/the IRA had explicitly used language guaranteeing that republican violence had been abandoned for good, but it would break the post-ceasefire deadlock which has left the question of bilateral talks hanging in the air.

Speaking in Belfast yesterday, Sir Patrick Mayhew, Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, said it was right for the Government to be cautious in its response to the IRA. He added: 'I think a lot of caution is in order for us. After all, it is our people who have suffered 3,000 deaths and more than 20,000 injuries.'

Sir Patrick said it was wrong to seize 'the first opportunity' to suppose 'these people have given up for good'. He added: 'If we are not satisfied we do not know for sure we ever will be.'

He expressed concern over reports that Mitchel McLaughlin, a senior Sinn Fein official, had indicated in Londonderry that if there was no political progress the threat of violence could return. Sir Patrick added: 'I think anything that is capable of being interpreted as a threat is extremely worrying and it is extremely unhelpful to a process which every sensible person wants to proceed on a proper basis.'

One reason for ministerial caution is intelligence reports suggesting recent IRA recruitment activity. No move is expected this week.

Sir Patrick faces a full Northern Ireland debate at the party conference on Thursday, and the agenda is crowded with Unionist motions, many of them proposing full integration of Northern Ireland into the United Kingdom.

The motion chosen for debate, from the Gedling constituency congratulates both Mr Major and Albert Reynolds, the Irish Taoiseach, for the Downing Street declaration. The Tory high command has not decided whether a strongly integrationist amendment from the North Down constituency association would also be accepted for debate.