LEADING ARTICLE: A wisp of Easter hope rising:

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Eighty years ago this weekend, as British and Irish troops fought and died on the Western Front, Irish republicans staged a coup in the centre of Dublin. "A terrible beauty is born," wrote the poet - how disfigured and ugly Yeats's creature now appears. This Easter, the Irish Republican Army, splintered descendants of the men of 1916, put out a petulant message. Look over your shoulders, you Brits, we are going on planting bombs. But we also want to talk, they say, as long as there are no preconditions and the Government sits on the Ulster Unionists. It's an odd, broken-backed statement, but in it there is a glimmering.

In 1916, the republican insurgents eventually gave up the struggle, for the good reason that their cause had become hopeless and further bloodshed served no purpose. In 1996 republican terrorists continue to affirm their commitment to violence, despite their political wing having won a place within a process of negotiation about the governance of the north of Ireland.

Except that they do and they don't. Since the bombs six weeks ago a de facto ceasefire has held. We do not know how far this is deliberate, how far incidents may have been thwarted and aborted. Still, the statement published in the Sinn Fein newspaper is worth parsing. This, it seems, is the voice of the IRA controlling group itself. And it says, unambiguously, the negotiating table is "the only place for all the representatives of the Irish people to go". Meanwhile Sir Patrick Mayhew says the all-party talks on Northern Ireland in June would be "immeasurably improved" by the presence of Sinn Fein. At least they sound as if the direction of travel is similar.

This weekend the security forces must be extra alert - and make careful use of the sweeping new powers given them a few days ago. The threat of IRA violence poisons the holiday air. And yet this IRA statement may indicate their appreciation of how much would be lost by further attacks.

The gap between Adams' position and the Government's is barn-door wide. Sinn Fein wants cast-iron guarantees that talks will be about what they call the "real issues" - presumably a non-Unionist-dominated scheme of government for Northern Ireland. But if the British government committed itself, to the extent of saying that decommissioning weapons was one, but only one, of the issues to be addressed: would that get the ceasefire reinstated? Without a reinstatement, Sinn Fein participation is impermissible.

Consultation ends on the Government's proposals for the electoral framework for the new Northern Ireland forum just after Easter. Then the Government moves to legislate. Between now and then is a time for more speeches like Sir Patrick's in Dublin the other day. As long as the de facto ceasefire holds, the prospect of a formal re-declaration remains tantalising.

Does that leave ground for hope this Easter? Hope, that the Government in its enthusiasm for peace is prepared to put its House of Commons arithmetic second in order to give Sir Patrick Mayhew his head; hope, that the IRA studies the trajectory of nationalism in the island of Ireland, let alone elsewhere in the advanced world, and acknowledges its own redundancy; hope that would-be republican "martyrs" of 1996 spend a fraction of these next three days measuring themselves not against the mythologised rebels of 1916 but against the example of the Martyr of the first Easter.