The Irish Republican Army on Saturday ordered a new cease-fire to begin at noon Sunday, confronting Ulster Protestants with a difficult decision about whether to enter talks with Sinn Fein on terms they do not like.
The IRA decision, heralded by Sinn Fein President Gerry Adams on Friday, was announced in a statement telephoned to radio stations in Dublin early Saturday. The statement referred to an “unequivocal” cease-fire and said: “We are prepared to enhance the search for peace through real and inclusive negotiations.”
Prime Ministers Tony Blair of Britain and Bertie Ahern of Ireland welcomed the announcement, and British Northern Ireland Secretary Marjorie “Mo” Mowlam said her officials would open talks with Sinn Fein as soon as the cease-fire took effect.
Protestants remained skeptical of IRA intentions. Some noted the IRA had not said the cease-fire would be “permanent,” and suggested it was a tactical move that could prove as impermanent as the last IRA cease-fire.
The Democratic Unionist Party of the Rev. Ian Paisley and the small United Kingdom Unionist Party already have announced they won’t sit down with Sinn Fein, the political wing of the IRA.
A crucial moment will come on Wednesday when the Ulster Unionist Party, the largest Protestant party, must decide whether to accept or reject terms for starting all-party negotiations that will include Sinn Fein on Sept. 15.
At issue is the question of disarming the IRA and Protestant paramilitary organizations.
A dispute over that issue blocked the inclusion of Sinn Fein in peace talks during the previous IRA ceasefire, which lasted from August 1994 to February 1996, but Blair and Ahern have been determined that it will not remain a stumbling block.
They have drawn up a paper which is highly ambiguous, stating that arms decommissioning, as the process is called, will take place in parallel with peace talks, rather than beforehand as Protestants and the former British government originally demanded.
The paper does not spell out precisely when decommissioning will begin, but says the chairman of the peace talks, former U.S. Sen. George Mitchell, will review the question periodically.
This proposal is deeply resented by the Ulster Unionists, but party leader David Trimble recognizes the two governments have placed him in a difficult position which is now compounded by the IRA cease-fire: If he rejects the paper, he will stand accused before world opinion of wrecking the peace process; if he accepts it he will enrage many of his followers.
“It would now be difficult for us to be seen to destroy the talks,” Trimble said on Friday. “You can imagine what the world would say if we did that.”
But Trimble, who is meeting Blair on Monday, has not said definitely what decision he will take on Wednesday.
If the Ulster Unionists reject the paper and bring about the collapse of the peace talks, the British government has said it will continue the peace process by other means. This likely would take the form of proximity talks, in which British officials would meet separately with Sinn Fein representatives and with Unionists.
The British and Irish also have threatened to go over the heads of politicians if the peace process fails, and put a proposed settlement to the voters of Northern Ireland and the Irish Republic in a referendum next year.
At a news conference Saturday in Belfast, Sinn Fein leaders appealed to the Unionists to overcome their suspicions and sit down and talk.
“We all need to deliver cease-fires in our minds,” said Martin McGuinness, the chief Sinn Fein negotiator. “The Unionist people want negotiations, but the danger is that what we will hear (from their leaders) are useless recriminations. We must do all in our power to bring to an end hatred, conflict, injustice and tears.”
Adams said Roman Catholics need to try to understand Unionist fears and concerns. He said he mistrusts the British government and Unionists, just as the Unionists mistrust him, but he is prepared to put aside those concerns and go into talks. “We can all find excuses” not to talk, he said.
He said the decommissioning of weapons is an issue on which there is disagreement and therefore it should be discussed and resolved in peace talks.
Peter Robinson, deputy leader of the Democratic Unionist Party, called the cease-fire “a futile gesture. No Unionist could sit down under these circumstances with Sinn Fein,” he said.
MEMO: This sidebar appeared with the story: PEACE TRAIN TIMETABLE On Wednesday nine major Northern Ireland parties will decide whether they will sit and talk with Sinn Fein, the IRA’s political arm, without the IRA surrendering any weapons, as was promised by Blair and his Irish counterpart Bertie Ahern. On September 15, the all-party peace talks are scheduled to resume under the chairmanship of former U.S. Sen. George Mitchell. Rejecting the notion of an openended peace process, Blair says May is the deadline for reaching a settlement.