Mr Rifkind emphasised the need for caution, but gave a strong hint that steps to make military patrols look less aggressive, including replacing helmets with regimental head-dress, would be followed by a lowering of troop presence on the streets. 'Our aim is to remove soldiers from the streets of Northern Ireland, but when it is safe to do so, and not a moment sooner,' Mr Rifkind said. It will not mean a reduction in the number of troops in Northern Ireland but it could go some way to meeting the demands of Sinn Fein for the demilitarisation of the province in return for the IRA ceasefire.
Downing Street confirmed that controversial parts of the Prevention of Terrorism Act, including exclusion orders, introduced in the wake of the Birmingham pub bombings, could be repealed early next year after the Act's annual review.
Dick Spring, the Irish foreign minister, yesterday proposed ending Irish emergency anti-terrorist powers, putting pressure on the British government to match his response. He will argue at a meeting of the Irish cabinet today for the dropping of the powers, first adopted in 1939 and updated in 1976, if peace in Northern Ireland is deemed secure.
But his proposals were challenged as 'premature' by Des O'Malley, a former justice minister, who used the powers to set up the non-jury, anti-terrorist Special Criminal Court in 1972.
Mr O'Malley said it was far from certain that the risk of intimidation of juries and the threat of gang warfare had disappeared. 'It (the Special Criminal Court) was brought in because juries were interfered with and intimidated and I don't see any reason that the same thing wouldn't happen today.'
Meanwhile, the Cabinet's Northern Ireland committee is expected to take the first step towards bringing Sinn Fein into the talks process on Thursday by taking 'the working assumption' that the ceasefire is permanent.
Ministers are preparing to lift the exclusion order on Gerry Adams banning the Sinn Fein president from the mainland, but that may be delayed as a 'carrot' to offer Sinn Fein when they enter the talks with government officials. The Prime Minister has defended his cautious response to the ceasefires, but the Government is keen to avoid the criticism that it is dragging its heels.
However, difficulties ahead were underlined by Ian Paisley, leader of the Democratic Unionist Party, who attacked James Molyneaux, the Ulster Unionist leader, for 'crawling to Dublin' shortly before Mr Molyneaux met Mr Major.
Mr Paisley's attack was provoked by Mr Molyneaux's readiness to accept Sinn Fein into talks at official level before Christmas as a result of the ceasefire. Mr Paisley also attacked the 'counterfeit peace process' and denounced Mr Major as 'untrustworthy'. The Prime Minister met Mr Molyneaux last night at Downing Street to discuss the Government's next steps towards bringing Sinn Fein and loyalist groups into the talks process.
The publication of the framework document by the Dublin and London governments at the end of the month is likely to inject some realism into the hopes for lasting peace. It will be a broad package, including cross-border bodies, an elected power-sharing assembly for Ulster, and constitutional changes in Ireland and Britain over the future of the province.