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IRA and Britain Move Closer to Direct Peace Negotiations

By Steve Coll
The Washington Post
BELFAST, Northern Ireland

Britain and the Irish Republican Army inched closer toward agreement on conditions for direct peace talks Thursday, but British officials said they were not yet fully convinced that the IRA's cease-fire declaration Wednesday was a pledge to end violence permanently.

The London government regards commitment to a permanent cease-fire as essential before a schedule for direct negotiations to end Northern Ireland's sectarian conflict can be set.

The overwhelmingly Roman Catholic IRA has been engaged in a 25-year violent campaign to unite Northern Ireland, where Protestants form a two-thirds majority, with the mostly Catholic Republic of Ireland to the south. Extremists among Northern Ireland's Protestants in turn have violently pursued their demand that the northern province remain part of Britain.

British Prime Minister John Major came under further pressure Thursday night after it was disclosed that British prison officials Thursday transferred four IRA prisoners - including two serving life sentences for a bombing attack in 1984 on then-Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher and other cabinet officials - from a prison on the British mainland to one nearer to the terrorists' families in Northern Ireland.

British prison officials stressed that the decision to move the prisoners had been reached and made public earlier this summer, well before the IRA truce announcement. But leaders of Northern Ireland's Protestants and some British officials fiercely criticized the transfer, saying it created the impression that London had made secret concessions to the IRA.

British officials and Irish Prime Minister Albert Reynolds reiterated tonight that no private deal of any kind had been made with the IRA to induce its landmark cease-fire announcement.

The first day of that cease-fire passed quietly in the province as the parties to the conflict here, in London and in Dublin squabbled over whether the wording of the IRA statement Wednesday, in which the outlawed group declared a "complete cessation of military operations," meant that the group and its supporters intended to give up their guns permanently.

Dublin already believes that the IRA has forsworn violence for good, but some British officials and many Protestants in Northern Ireland expressed incredulity that IRA leaders have been unwilling thus far to utter the word "permanent" in reference to their declared cease-fire.