U.S. News & World Report

SEPTEMBER 12, 1994


In Northern Ireland, words can be as lethal as bullets, so it is hardly surprising that a cease-fire after 25 years of bloodshed was greeted by more caution and cynicism than euphoria. Two previous cease-fires broke down in a welter of recrimination. Ulster's increasingly isolated and suspicious Protestant militants suspect an Irish Republican Army trick and the British and Irish governments do not agree on whether or not the cease-fire is permanent.

While any break in the slaughter -- which has claimed 3,169 lives since the current "troubles'' exploded in 1969 -- is welcome, there is no reason to celebrate yet. The IRA has not offered to give up its weapons, nor has it renounced the use of violence, and there is an ever present danger that some splinter groups will simply continue killing. And, of course, an IRA cease-fire does not cover the Protestant paramilitary groups that have been responsible for most of the terrorism in the past two years. Indeed, there were three attacks against Catholic targets within 24 hours of the IRA cease-fire; one Catholic man was killed.

Nevertheless, the IRA's declaration last week of "a complete cessation of military operations'' offers the best chance at a real peace in 20 years. The cease-fire declaration represents an IRA judgment that it can now achieve more by political action than violence, and despite their suspicions, most Ulster Protestants have not rejected it. Moreover, London and Dublin, their differences notwithstanding, remain committed to negotiating a settlement.

The key question is whether the IRA statement, which was read by nationalist spokesman Gerry Adams, the head of the Sinn Fein Party that demands a united Ireland, marks an end to the killing or is simply another timeout in the terrorism.

The IRA's immediate objective remains destabilizing Northern Ireland, whose six counties are three-quarters Protestant, and forcing its eventual incorporation in a [Roman] Catholic-dominated united Ireland.

The IRA's demands include the withdrawal of British troops from Northern Ireland and amnesty for jailed nationalist paramilitaries.

Meanwhile, Ulster's militant Unionists fear that London will betray them in negotiations with the IRA. The transfer of four republican prisoners--one of whom was convicted of trying to kill former Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher--from Britain to Northern Ireland hours after the IRA announcement did little to discourage such suspicions.

Even mainline Unionists may sit on the sidelines and avoid negotiations. They also want to hold the British government to its promise, contained in last December's Downing Street Declaration by the British and Irish governments, that London will defend the right of Northern Ireland's people to decide their own future. And the Protestants certainly will demand that the IRA turn over its weapons and explosives before they agree, if they ever agree, to talks with Sinn Fein.


It now is up to the British government to convince paranoid Unionists that their position is secure without jeopardizing the cease-fire. Prime Minister John Major was quick to seek a pledge that the IRA cease-fire is permanent and to reiterate his promise that Northern Ireland will remain British for as long as a majority of its citizens want.

Irish Prime Minister Albert Reynolds accepted the IRA declaration at face value, saying: `

But Reynolds also conceded that ``peace will take time.'' Although Ireland's Constitution claims all of the island, the Irish Republic probably would settle for a power-sharing arrangement.

Under the terms of the Downing Street Declaration, three months must pass without violence before talks about talks can even begin with Sinn Fein. If the cease-fire holds, the British and Irish governments will try to craft a framework for negotiations that could begin early next year on a full-scale settlement. Both the Irish Constitution and Britain's Government of Ireland Act of 1920, which expresses Parliament's ``supreme authority'' over the six counties of Northern Ireland, would be on the table.

But first, Northern Ireland must manage three months without violence.