Ireland on verge of peace

NORTHERN Ireland's loyalist guerillas yesterday announced a cease-fire, bringing the British province to the threshold of a peace it has not known for 25 years.

The move was welcomed by British Prime Minister John Major, his Irish counterpart Albert Reynolds and politicians of all parties.

The British Government said full political talks on the future of Northern Ireland could begin three months after it was satisfied the cease-fires were permanent.

Mr Major said he was 'delighted - another very important part of the jigsaw has fallen into place'.

Mr Reynolds described the dramatic move as 'the closure of a tragic chapter in our history'.

The outlawed loyalist groups, the Ulster Freedom Fighters and the Ulster Volunteer Force, said in a statement delivered by a member of a fringe party the Progressive Ulster Unionists: 'The combined loyalist military command will universally cease all operational hostilities as from midnight on Thursday.

'The permanence of our cease-fire will be completely dependent upon a contingent cessation of all nationalist and republican violence. The sole responsibility for a return to war lies with them.' It added: 'In all sincerity we offer to the loved ones of all innocent victims over the past 25 years abject and true remorse. No words of ours can compensate for the intolerable suffering they have undergone during this conflict.' They said there would be a time in the future when the loyalists would be prepared to talk to Sinn Fein but that time had not yet arrived.

The dramatic move follows the earlier decision by the IRA to halt its campaign of bombings and terror six weeks ago. Loyalist terrorists had been responsible for around one third of the 3,000 killed and 20,000 injured in the 'troubles'.

The move follows a decision by the British Government on Monday to allow loyalist leaders of front organisations to meet jailed loyalist terrorists in the Maze prison.

Northern Ireland Secretary, Sir Patrick Mayhew, described the cease-fire as 'very welcome'.

He added: 'It has to be made quite clear that there is no justification at all for the use of violence in any circumstances in a democracy.' He said no secret deal had been done with the terrorists and there had been no contact at all between the Government and them.

Shadow Northern Ireland Secretary Kevin MacNamara said it was very good news for Northern Ireland and for all the British Isles but he was sorry the loyalists had issued conditions as there was no justification for violence at all.

SDLP leader John Hume, who began the peace process by holding talks with Sinn Fein leader Gerry Adams, said it was time for the province to 'despatch the past and work for a future we can all be proud of'.

'Today is a very good day for the people of Northern Ireland, a day that they deserve.' Both loyalist groups had initially been reluctant to end the violence, even carrying out bombings in the Republic of Ireland since the IRA cease-fire.

They feared the IRA's move was the product of a secret deal with the British Government. But gradually, through the influence of moderate Unionists, they began to accept the Government's assurance that there had been no deals, especially after Mr Major visited Belfast two weeks ago to announce that there would be no changes in the position of the province without a referendum.

David Trimble, an Ulster Unionist MP, said he hoped the cease-fire would mean a permanent renunciation of violence. 'A step forward has taken place and I hope that the remaining steps necessary for a complete and utter renunciation of violence occur.' The approach of the Government will continue to be cautious as one problem still waiting to be resolved is the future of the huge stocks of arms and explosives held by both sides.

One problem for the loyalists is that, unlike the IRA with Sinn Fein, they have never had a political party front organisation.

so it is not clear how they will be represented at any future political talks.