BRITAIN and the Irish Republic hope they have achieved a breakthrough for peace by issuing a joint declaration aimed at ending a quarter of a century of violence in Northern Ireland.
The delicately worded accord, signed in London yesterday by Prime Ministers John Major and Albert Reynolds, took three months to complete. It aims to bring an end to the sectarian violence that has claimed more than 3,000 lives in the last 25 years.
The declaration proposes the creation of a Northern Ireland forum in which the political representatives of Republican terrorists would be invited to take part along with other Northern Ireland politicians. But it has been bitterly denounced as ``a dirty deal'' by one of Northern Ireland's leading Protestant politicians.
Mr. Major said the document was ``a declaration for democracy and dialogue based on consent'' which made ``no compromise on strongly held principles.''
Mr. Reynolds described the declaration as ``a historic opportunity'' for all in Northern Ireland ``to make a new beginning.''
But in a furious attack on the seven-page declaration, the Rev. Ian Paisley, leader of Northern Ireland's Democratic Unionist Party, said it had been agreed in ``a dark age of treachery.'' Mr. Paisley said his followers would oppose the accord.
The immediate aim of the declaration is to persuade the Irish Republican Army to halt their campaign of violence and make it possible for London and Dublin to sponsor detailed discussions about the way ahead in Northern Ireland.
The IRA is to be given until the end of February to prove that its campaign of violence is at an end. If it does so, the British government says it will take part in talks with Sinn Fein, the IRA's political wing.
A senior British government source described the joint declaration as ``a complex and carefully crafted compromise'' between governments that worked ``terribly hard to achieve common ground.''
The declaration sets out to satisfy Northern Ireland's Protestant majority that there will be no change in the province's constitutional status without the agreement of its people, the source said. Equally important is the document's acceptance that the hopes of Irish nationalists for a united Ireland are legitimate.
Final details of the joint declaration were hammered out in a flurry of negotiations between London and Dublin on Tuesday. British and Irish sources indicated that the wording had been informally tested in advance on people close to the IRA and Sinn Fein leadership as well as on prominent Protestant politicians in the British parliament, including James Molyneaux, leader of the official Ulster Unionist Party.
Both Major and Reynolds expressed guarded optimism about the chances of the accord winning acceptance, although their officials conceded that the reaction of rogue elements in the opposing terrorist groups was impossible to forecast.
Even before it was released, the declaration was being viewed with intense caution by some Northern Ireland politicians. John Taylor, a member of Mr. Molyneaux's party, said that if it satisfied moderate Protestants and moderate Catholics, who are the vast majority in Northern Ireland, agreement between London and Dublin would be welcome.
But if it was the kind of document that satisfied the IRA, Britain would have ``big problems on its hands.''
Paisley's attack on the declaration was described by a British official as ``sad, unfortunate, but predictable.''
The official said the longer-term reaction of Molyneaux and his more moderate followers was going to be more important than Paisley's ``firebrand oratory.''
Molyneaux's party holds nine seats in the British Parliament, and Major needs its continuing support to be sure of maintaining his majority.
As the two prime ministers put their signatures to the declaration, evidence emerged in Belfast of a strong desire for peace among members of the Northern Ireland business community. A poll of 80 chief executives of leading companies showed that 95 percent favored Sinn Fein taking part in peace talks. The businessmen also backed the idea of testing any proposed political settlement at the ballot box through separate referendums in both parts of Ireland.