IN a bid to step up pressure on a politically weakened British prime minister and secure a place in Northern Ireland peace talks, the Irish Republican Army (IRA) has ordered an unconditional cease-fire for the Easter period.
The call for a three-day cessation of hostilities starting next Tuesday was dismissed by Prime Minister John Major as ``a cynical public relations gesture.'' But the IRA timed the cease-fire to extract maximum advantage from Mr. Major's low standing among his own supporters. Gerry Adams, leader of Sinn Fein, the IRA's political wing, accuses Major of intransigence and a refusal to show flexibility in the search for peace.
In the past week the British leader has been savagely attacked by politicians of his own ruling Conservative Party for what they say was his inept handling of negotiations with the European Union over voting rights.
Two senior Cabinet ministers - Michael Heseltine, the trade secretary, and Kenneth Clarke, the chancellor of the exchequer - are preparing thinly disguised campaigns to challenge Major for the party leadership amid unmistakable signs that the prime minister's days at 10 Downing Street may be numbered.
Two backbench Conservative members of parliament also broke ranks with their party in mid-week by calling for Major to step aside. The prime minister was forced to issue a statement on March 30 saying he was unruffled by the criticism and asked members of his Cabinet to make public declarations of loyalty.
Mr. Clarke, however, coupled his supportive remarks with a statement that he intended to succeed the prime minister ``when John Major of his own volition steps down.''
Mr. Heseltine, who in 1990 was beaten for the Conservative leadership by Major, is known to be gearing up his private office for a leadership challenge in case the prime minister resigns.
British ministers interpreted the IRA's cease-fire as an attempt to force Major to clarify last December's Downing Street peace declaration, which calls for the IRA to halt its campaign of violence permanently before it can be allowed to join the peace process. Thus far, Britain and the Irish Republic, cosignatories of the declaration, have refused to add anything to the document.
John Hume, leader of the nationalist Social and Democratic Labour Party (SDLP), said it would be worth responding positively to the cease-fire ``if the ultimate objective is a total cessation of violence.'' Pressure for a positive response came also from Britain's Labour Party. Kevin McNamara, Labour's spokesman on Northern Ireland affairs, said: ``If people are going to stop killing and stop engaging in violence for three days, that should be welcomed.''
But Northern Ireland's Protestant leaders urged Major to ignore the cease-fire. ``This is a tactic that has to do with placing the IRA and Sinn Fein in a stronger position than they are presently in,'' says Ken Maginnis, Ulster Unionist parliamentarian. He pointed to the IRA's attacks on London's Heathrow Airport last month as ``evidence of their bad faith.''
Major's advisers say the Easter holiday, with parliament in recess, will allow Conservative parliamentarians to ponder the dangers to their party of continuing to attack the prime minister. But it will be some weeks before the beleaguered British leader has an opportunity to reassert himself.
Local elections are to be held nationwide on May 5, followed by elections for the European Parliament on June 9. If the Conservatives do well in these contests, Major may be able to claim the credit. But public opinion polls are forecasting big losses in both electoral contests.