Prime Minister John Major accepted the seven-week-old Irish Republican Army cease-fire as genuine Friday and said that if it continues Britain will hold "exploratory talks" with IRA representatives before the end of the year.
His commitment means the struggle for peace in Northern Ireland is soon to enter a new phase _ direct talks between the British government and Sinn Fein, the political arm for the organization London has long reviled as terrorist.
Although Sinn Fein leaders had never declared the cease-fire they announced Sept. 1 to be "permanent," as the British government had demanded, Major insisted Friday that their actions "have been more compelling than their words."
As a consequence, he said, he was now prepared to make "a working assumption that the cease-fire is intended to be permanent." He went on, "If the IRA continues to show that it has ended its terrorism, then we shall be ready to convene exploratory talks before this year is out."
The prime minister's long-awaited response, in a speech to businessmen during a trip to Belfast, was coupled with a series of other steps intended to prod the peace effort in Northern Ireland now that terrorists on both sides, Catholic republicans and Protestant loyalists, appear to have put down their weapons.
One step was the immediate opening of the 88 roads still closed between Northern Ireland and the Irish Republic to the south. The roads were sealed by the British over the last 20 years in an attempt to cut off escape and supply routes for the IRA along the 300-mile border.
Another step announced by Major was the lifting of "exclusion orders" that prevented Gerry Adams and Martin McGuinness, the two top Sinn Fein leaders, from traveling to other parts of Britain.
Major's concessions were immediately welcomed by Sinn Fein. "At last, a move in the right direction from the British prime minister," said McGuinness, speaking on ITN television. "I broadly welcome what he has to say."
But McGuinness renewed Sinn Fein's long-standing demand that British soldiers, who back up police officers on patrol in Northern Ireland, be removed. "We are moving now to a situation where many in the British military establishment and the British government will accept that the next part of this process is to bring these soldiers off the streets," he said.
Major said Friday that this would happen eventually but not right away. "The need for soldiers to patrol the streets will continue to be reviewed in relation to the threat, and it is our intent to return to exclusively civilian policing," he said.
In his address Major had something for everyone. To the unionists among the Protestant majority of 950,000, who want to stay a part of Britain, he repeated a pledge to hold a referendum on any proposals that might emerge from talks with all the parties.
To the IRA, fighting in the name of the province's 650,000 Catholics to unite it with the Irish Republic, he offered talks and other concessions. And to the Protestant paramilitary groups, which declared their own cease-fire a week ago, he said the government would "enter into contact" with them so they could "take part in public life" once they had demonstrated a continuing commitment to peace.