The Associated Press
BELFAST, Northern Ireland Ä Reports that the IRA was about to call a cease-fire after a quarter-century of bloodshed put nerves on edge Tuesday in Northern Ireland's majority Protestant community.
Speculation became intense after Gerry Adams, leader of the Sinn Fein party, said Monday that he had met with IRA leaders and told them the time was right to "break the political, constitutional and military stalemate and create the potential to eradicate the underlying causes of conflict."
Adams, whose party is the main political ally of the outlawed Irish Republican Army, said the group's leaders promised a swift response.
Many among the Protestant majority feared the IRA would not suspend its terror campaign to reunite the province with the largely Roman Catholic Irish republic unless it had won concessions from the British government.
"The vast majority of people in Northern Ireland don't want civil war, but they are being compelled into a civil war situation by what the government is doing," said the Rev. Ian Paisley, hard-line leader of the Democratic Unionist Party.
The Ulster Defense Association, one of the two main Protestant-based paramilitary organizations, warned of civil war if the IRA had its way.
"Do you, the Irish, seriously believe we will sit back and allow ourselves to be coerced and persuaded into an all-Ireland?" the group, which also is outlawed, said in a statement to news media.
The British government denied there had been any change in its policy on Northern Ireland.
The British and Irish governments agreed in December that there would be no change in Northern Ireland's status without the consent of a majority of its people. They also said Sinn Fein could not participate in peace talks unless the IRA permanently halted violence.
"Contrary to wild speculation over the weekend, there has been no shift in the attitude of Her Majesty's government in regard to the constitutional position of Northern Ireland," said James Molyneaux, leader of the Ulster Unionist Party, the largest Protestant-based party in Northern Ireland.
In Dublin, Prime Minister Albert Reynolds of Ireland met with his Cabinet on Tuesday. Unconfirmed news reports said the Irish government had been informed of the terms of an IRA cease-fire announcement.
Irish rebels fought under the IRA banner against Britain between 1916 and 1921, when the Irish republic became independent and Northern Ireland remained part of Britain. But the IRA was inactive and poorly armed when ethnic violence blew up in Northern Ireland in 1969.
The "provisional" wing of the IRA took up arms in 1970, months after British troops were put on the streets to separate Catholic and Protestant mobs.
Aided by arms shipments from Libya, the revived IRA developed into a disciplined and inventive guerrilla force. Its tactics included sniper attacks on army patrols, long-range attacks with homemade mortars, huge bombs that shattered town centers and pocket-size incendiaries that devastated shops.
The IRA last called a cease-fire in 1975, but felt it had been deceived by British officials. The British concluded the IRA was interested only in a breather while it built up for further attacks.
The IRA has accounted for more than half the 3,100 deaths in "the troubles." But in recent years, Protestant-based "loyalists" have killed more people than the IRA. So far this year, the IRA has killed 17, compared to 18 by the Ulster Volunteer Force and 11 by the Ulster Defense Association.
The last victim claimed by the IRA was Trelford Withers, 46, a part-time soldier who was shot to death Aug. 8 in his butcher shop in Crossgar, 16 miles south of Belfast.
Sinn Fein leaders met Friday with an unofficial U.S. delegation, led by former Democratic congressman Bruce Morrison of Connecticut. Morrison said his group urged Sinn Fein to accept the terms for negotiations set by Britain and Ireland.
Adams said he was encouraged by the "common ground" established by his party with the Irish government and the Social Democratic and Labor Party, the largest Catholic-based party in Northern Ireland.
"The potential now exists to move the situation towards a democratic and peaceful settlement," Adams said.
John Hume, leader of the Social Democrats, said Tuesday that the process he and Adams were promoting threatened no one, "because its ultimate objective is agreement Ä agreement Ä among our divided people, and that agreement must earn the allegiance and agreement of all our traditions."
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