A letter from the US National Security Council was hand-delivered in April by Val Martinez, the American consul-general in Belfast, to a close associate of the Sinn Fein president, Gerry Adams.
There have been numerous other indirect contacts between Sinn Fein and the US administration since then, according to authoritative US sources. American policy is being handled directly from the White House by Nancy Soderberg, a director at the National Security Council and a close confidant of President Bill Clinton.
Although the British government, so far as is known, is not in direct contact with the republican movement, the Irish government appears to have had prolonged contacts with Mr Adams via intermediaries. These contacts have led Irish ministers to take a more optimistic view of the possibility of an IRA ceasefire than their British counterparts.
The Taoiseach, Albert Reynolds, has appealed to the republicans to choose a complete cessation of violence, but speculation in Belfast and Dublin centres on a ceasefire of about three months. However, several sources say a ceasefire is not expected during August, but could start next month.
Such a move would be presented by the IRA as an imaginative gesture demanding a significant response from Britain. Both London and Dublin have repeatedly said Sinn Fein could not expect a place at any conference table unless a permanent cessation was in place. But even a limited ceasefire would ease the pressure the republicans are now undoubtedly feeling.
A ceasefire of three or even two months would lead to calls from many sources in Ireland, Britain and the US for a positive move from Britain. The prospect of future American visas for Gerry Adams and other republican leaders is seen as one of the possible inducements to Sinn Fein to opt for the political processes.
The Clinton administration's position is that it did not err in granting Mr Adams a visa earlier this year despite fierce British opposition. The US State Department is unhappy that the visa was granted because it soured relations with Britain, but it no longer directs US policy on Ireland, which has become increasingly important in domestic US politics.
In the event of a ceasefire Mr Adams hopes to be able to use his influence in the US to put pressure on Britain in any future talks and once peace has taken hold, Sinn Fein believes it could rely on a sympathetic audience in the US to maintian that pressure.
It is also expected that Mr Adams and other Sinn Fein leaders could conduct a tour of major US cities to drum up support in the event of a prolonged ceasefire. US Administration sources recently told the Irish Times that Mr Adams would probably get another visa to explain Sinn Fein policy to supporters in the US if the IRA stopped the violence.
In Northern Ireland, however, the IRA kept up its campaign yesterday with the killing of Thomas Withers, 46, a part-time member of the Royal Irish Regiment, as he stood behind the counter of his butcher's shop in the quiet Co Down town of Crossgar. He died almost at once after being shot in the head by a gunman who escaped on a motorcycle.
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