Sinn Fein moves create political tumult in Ulster: David McKittrick assesses the impact of the latest manoeuvring

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The Independent Online
THE Anglo-Irish political scene was thrown into renewed tumult yesterday as it attempted to come to grips with John Major's Guildhall speech and the potentially explosive reports that the British government had been secretly dealing with Sinn Fein.

In Belfast, the Government's forthright denials that any of its representatives had been in touch with republicans were insufficient to reassure political circles which are characterised by scepticism and cynicism. More than one politician said: 'It wouldn't surprise me.' The official denials were being balanced against a widespread belief that the republicans possess firm evidence of the contacts.

Sinn Fein leaders know that Gerry Adams will come under increasing pressure to back up his claim, and promise that he can do so: 'He wouldn't have said it unless he could prove it,' one republican source said.

Mr Adams repeated yesterday that 'protracted contact and dialogue between his government and Sinn Fein occurred without pre- conditions'. If such contacts are shown to have taken place, a completely new perspective will be placed on the events of the last few months. For one thing, the government position, that Sinn Fein could only enter the political arena once IRA violence had ended, would no longer be tenable.

While clarification of this point is awaited, the Prime Minister's speech drew a wide range of responses. While the Rev Ian Paisley denounced it as showing that Mr Major no longer cared for the union, the Ulster Unionist party was less certain in its reaction, suggesting that it contained nothing new and amounted to papering over cracks in Anglo-Irish relations.

Mr Major's words were welcomed by the Irish government. Dick Spring, the foreign minister, described it as a very important speech. Dublin will have been pleased by a number of Mr Major's points, including the sense of urgency that he imparted, together with his declaration that there may now be a real opportunity for peace, and his use of language concerning the need for courage and to take risks. All these carry echoes of recent pronouncements by Irish ministers.

But while Mr Major used many of Dublin's current buzzwords, the speech was a masterpiece of subtle drafting which may be read in two different ways.

While it gave the clear impression of sharing many of Dublin's concerns and endorsing many of its key points, the text gave no actual commitment to signing up for any of the elements of the 'peace process' which the Taoiseach, Albert Reynolds, has recently been pursuing with great enthusiasm and commitment.

In fact, Mr Major, in listing the elements which gave grounds for hope, did not mention the possibility of any change of heart within the republican movement.

Mr Reynolds's key point, based on the Hume-Adams talks initiative, is that such a change could be on the cards. The net effect of the speech, therefore, was to leave Mr Major's options open: he did not reject Mr Reynolds's approach, but neither did he endorse it.

This means that the parameters of Mr Major's plan for peace remain unknown. He reaffirmed his commitment to the idea of pursuing inter-party talks and commenting on 'the burning desire' for peace in Northern Ireland, but he has yet to specify which additional elements are to be included in his plan.

The speech drew an early response from Mr Reynolds, who in the Dail yesterday softened his line on timescales - he had earlier spoken of aiming for peace by Christmas. The British Government had previously signalled that inter- party talks were its priority, while Dublin had said it was much more concerned with the peace process.

Both premiers, in their speeches, used the word 'complementary' of the objectives of obtaining a cessation of violence and of moving on the political talks. This is clearly the basis of a compromise.

But Mr Reynolds wants the British Government firmly on board for his peace process, and Mr Major is still declining to join him. By themselves, inter-party talks would lack credibility as a peace process, for on their own they hold no prospect of bringing about an IRA cessation.

Mr Major will either need some other new element, or he may yet sign up for Mr Reynolds's approach. He did not show his hand in the Guildhall speech, but the manner of its presentation to the media has added to the general sense of momentum and maintained the expectation that something big is on the way from him.