A Seat for Sinn Fein?

IF it holds, the Irish Republican Army's unconditional cease-fire, announced yesterday, is a welcome development in the long-running tragedy of sectarian strife in Northern Ireland.

The move has the potential to clear the way for Sinn Fein, the IRA's legal political arm, to join talks with Britain and Ireland aimed at mapping a process for determining the province's political future: whether to remain part of Britain or be united with the Irish Republic. If that future is to be determined by the people of Northern Ireland, Sinn Fein must be among the discussants.

Britain and Ireland have said that exploratory talks with Sinn Fein could begin within three months of a permanent halt to IRA violence. But questions remain about whether the IRA's move is permanent; its announcement does not mention duration.

The IRA's vagueness on this point could be divisive. Irish Prime Minister Albert Reynolds said that his government believes the IRA's move ``meets the requirements of our government that there is a complete cessation of military operations.'' British Prime Minister John Major, who holds a fragile and fractious majority in the House of Commons, welcomed the cease-fire but added that ``we need to be clear that this is indeed intended to be a permanent renunciation of violence.''

Yet the IRA faces the prospect of internal splits if its move doesn't yield tangible results. Memories of a violent rift that developed during a nine-month cease-fire in 1975 haven't faded. An open-ended cease-fire may have been as much as the organization could agree to without raising the prospect of another internal battle.

If internal IRA politics is one key to the cease-fire's duration, another is the reaction of unionist paramilitary forces. They fear a sellout by Britain, and their attacks have killed more people in Northern Ireland in the 1990s than have the IRA's. What, they ask, did Britain concede to induce the IRA to move? At this point, speculation includes a release of prisoners and a withdrawal of some British troops from Northern Ireland if violence subsides. It is unclear how long the IRA would stand idle in the face of continued attacks by radical unionists.

Mr. Major should do what he can to ease unionist fears; but he also has been given the strongest positive signal by the IRA since current peace efforts began. The countdown period to talks with Sinn Fein, which also serves as a test of good faith for the IRA, should begin now.

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