THE equivocal July 24 reply of Sinn Fein, the political wing of the Irish Republic Army, to a call from the British and Irish governments to renounce violence and join peace talks on Northern Ireland, sounded strangely familiar here.
Only days earlier the Bosnian Serbs had done their best to avoid a ``yes or no'' answer to a peace plan for Bosnia put forward by a contact group of nations, including the United States. The Serbs' strategy seems to be that, by finesse and nonreply, they eventually will force disagreements between the contact group's members that will result in stalemate and inaction.
Does Sinn Fein have a similar motive? Its leader, Gerry Adams, positioned his party's ``not yes'' as a ``not no'' either. Mr. Adams spoke of looking ``to the next steps'' in the process while saying that the Anglo-Irish accord, known as the Downing Street Declaration, ``does not deal adequately with some of the core issues.'' He did make some hopeful statements, calling on his party to ``reach out to our political opponents,'' adding that ``despite the wrongs inflicted by unionists upon us, or indeed that we have inflicted upon the unionists, there is a need to heal the wounds.''
These words, if sincere, are something to build upon. In any case, dialogue with Sinn Fein must continue. But the seven-month hiatus, waiting for Sinn Fein's reply, now is over. In simple logic, ``not yes'' equals ``no.'' It's time to move ahead.
The British and Irish governments must continue with their plan to present framework documents for the future of Northern Ireland sometime this fall. And all political parties that have renounced violence must be encouraged to participate in planning a new government.
Sinn Fein's response was deeply disappointing. Making real progress without its support will be difficult. But ``yes'' was never considered a certainty, or perhaps even likely. Moving ahead now shows Sinn Fein that its failure to participate has set it on the margin, away from where peace and political progress are being hammered out.
Strong, united condemnations of either unionist or IRA violence must continue. Restraint against retaliatory violence must be maintained. The good faith evinced by the declaration must be built upon. Its central ideas, renouncing violence as a solution and endorsing any political arrangement that is acceptable to the people of Northern Ireland themselves, are powerful. They will continue to draw together people of good will.