The tantalizing prospect of an end to sectarian bloodshed arrived suddenly Friday in divided Northern Ireland, with signs of an imminent cease-fire by the Irish Republican Army.
In a surprise announcement, political allies of the IRA said they had asked the terrorists to lay down their arms and were confident of a positive response.
“The IRA leadership assured us that they would respond without delay to our request,” said Gerry Adams, the president of Sinn Fein, the political arm of the outlawed group of Irish nationalists who want to unite the British province with the neighboring Irish Republic.
The Sinn Fein initiative represented a clear breakthrough in the tortured search for peace, analysts in Belfast said Friday night, but they cautioned against premature celebration. Peace hopes have been repeatedly overwhelmed by renewed violence: The latest cease-fire, an 18-month truce, ended with an IRA bombing that killed two men in London in February 1996.
The British and Irish governments offered expressions of cautious hope after Adams’ announcement Friday. In Washington, the State Department welcomed the move. But reaction from leaders of the majority Protestant community in Northern Ireland ranged from polite disbelief to outright disdain.
Adams’ announcement came as a surprise because a spiral of violence by IRA and Protestant terrorists has quickened in recent weeks, including the killings of two policemen, bombings and street clashes. On Friday, mourners in Craigavon, Northern Ireland, attended the funeral of Bernadette Martin, an 18-year-old Roman Catholic woman shot to death earlier this week as she slept in the house of her Protestant boyfriend.
Adams maintains that Sinn Fein speaks for the IRA but is not part of it. The British government, however, sees no distinction between Sinn Fein and the IRA. It is unthinkable, British sources said, that the IRA would reject Adams’ request.
Analysts believe that an announcement of a new cease-fire is only a question of timing, and some were surprised it did not come Friday night. The IRA usually releases policy statements to Irish national radio and television in communiques dictated by a fictional press officer named P. O’Neill.
Robert McCartney, a member of Parliament and the leader of the UK Unionist Party, dismissed the Sinn Fein cease-fire call: “It doesn’t mean anything. It is part of Sinn Fein-IRA tactics to get into talks without ever having to hand over weapons,” he said.