THE leader of the Irish Republic Army's political wing, Sinn Fein, has vowed to give a definitive response on or shortly after June 9 to Northern Ireland peace proposals published last December by the British and Irish governments.
London and Dublin have told Gerry Adams, president of Sinn Fein, that regardless of whether the IRA's reply to the Downing Street Declaration is negative or unclear, talks involving both governments and antiterrorist political parties in the war-torn province will proceed.
But Unionist (Protestant) and other constitutional politicians in Northern Ireland have voiced deep skepticism about Mr. Adams's promise. They believe the Sinn Fein is merely trying to forward a good image for the June 9 European Parliament elections in which the organization is fielding candidates.
Further, the organization is believed to be divided between a faction that wants to give up the armed struggle and a core of die-hards who believe violence is the only way to effect their dual goal of removing British troops from Northern Ireland and achieving a united Ireland.
Ian Paisley, leader of the Democratic Unionist Party, says Prime Minister John Major is ``wasting his time'' if he thinks the IRA will pursue peace. Others have accused Adams of hypocrisy.
Since the declaration was made in mid-December 1992, Adams has insisted its contents be clarified if his followers were to join the peace process. Mr. Major consistently refused clarification, arguing the only step needed was for the IRA to renounce violence.
Hopes that the conflict in Northern Ireland may be moving toward a peaceful resolution began rising on May 25 when the British government switched its tactics and sent Adams a reply to 20 questions he had asked about the document Major and his Dublin counterpart Albert Reynolds signed six months ago.
In effect, the London response was the clarification Adams had sought, and it drew from the Sinn Fein leader a promise that the terrorists would announce their decision on or soon after June 9, voting day in elections for the European Parliament.
Major and Mr. Reynolds met May 26 in London, saying they were willing to give Sinn Fein and the IRA more time to consider their peace proposals. Reynolds said that if IRA ``internal debate'' took ``another few weeks,'' then ``so be it.''
For Adams, who earlier this year carried his campaign for Irish unity to the United States, Britain's decision to answer his questions was something of a public relations coup. But Major told him that the only answer the people of Northern Ireland wanted was when terrorism would be brought to an end.
LONDON'S 21-page response stated: ``Sinn Fein claims a commitment to the principle of self-determination. That means abiding by the will of the people. The vast majority of people in Ireland, north and south, of both religious traditions, demand an end to violence now.''
Adams appears to be gambling by forecasting that the IRA will be able to arrive at a definitive response to the Anglo-Irish peace plan. Seamus Mallon, a Northern Irish member of the House of Commons, agrees that the terrorist movement is split, and that Adams is having trouble persuading members to give up violence.
``Some say 60 percent favor a settlement, but Adams needs more support than that if he is to produce peace,'' said Mr. Mallon, deputy leader of the mainly Roman Catholic Social Democratic and Labour Party.
Irish newspapers, citing Republican sources, have reported that Adams wants at least 70 percent of the Sinn Fein and IRA membership to favor a settlement before he makes his next move.
Ironically, talk of peace began against a background of renewed tit-for-tat killings by IRA and Protestant paramilitary groups.
Although it has given Adams the clarifications he sought, London shows no sign of easing pressure on the IRA. One lever it possesses is the threat that London, Dublin, and the constitutional parties in Northern Ireland will begin hammering out a power-sharing arrangement that would leave Sinn Fein and the IRA on the political sidelines.
The British response underlined this approach: ``The next logical step, if the peace process is to be moved forward, is to have a cessation of violence. There is no single vestige of justification for the loss of one single life on either side in either community. The two governments are not waiting around.''
Adams replied: ``I am quite convinced that what is going to come out of this peace process is a peace settlement.''
Leading politicians from Northern Ireland's constitutional parties charged Adams with hypocrisy. Ken Maginnis, Ulster Unionist Party security spokesman, said Adams was preparing ``a cynical and very temporary cease-fire'' to maximize the Sinn Fein vote in the June 9 polling.