IN the immediate wake of the Northern Ireland cease-fire declaration, the British government is more interested in what the outlawed Irish Republican Army does in coming months than in what it says.
Statements by Prime Minister John Major might suggest otherwise. He has demanded the IRA state categorically that the cease-fire is permanent, rather than merely open-ended. But British sources say Mr. Major really wants concrete proof that the 25-year reign of terror is at an end - and that can be provided only by evidence of a sustained halt to bombing and shooting.
London is giving the IRA about three months to prove that words will be turned into deeds. Meanwhile, rhetoric directed at the IRA by Major and his ministers should be read in the light of the British government's need to reassure Northern Ireland's unionist (Protestant) majority that there have been no secret deals, and that the province's position in the United Kingdom will not be eroded.
So far, Major appears to have pleased anxious unionists in Northern Ireland, as well as members of his ruling Conservative Party who fear the cease-fire will prelude a political sellout by Britain.
Responding to fears voiced by James Molyneaux, head of the official Ulster Unionist Party, Major declared: ``There have been no secret deals, no secret understandings. The clamor about that has been total hogwash.''
The prime minister was trying to allay the concern of Northern Ireland's 1 million Protestants, many of whom greeted the cease-fire with suspicion.
The Rev. Ian Paisley, leader of the Democratic Unionist Party, gave loud voice to their apprehension, saying: ``Nobody believes the IRA have suddenly laid down their arms.''
Major's task in trying to calm unionist fears was made no easier by the reaction of republicans and nationalists in the province who took to the streets, waving placards saying ``We have won.''
Albert Reynolds, the Irish premier, responded to Major's demand that the IRA say the cease-fire was permanent by striking a more optimistic note. ``This is not a time for looking up words in dictionaries,'' Mr. Reynolds said. ``What we are witnessing is the end of an era of 25 years of armed conflict and violence.''
Significantly, Major and Sir Patrick Mayhew, his Northern Ireland secretary, say they are prepared to be flexible about how the IRA confirms that the cease-fire is permanent. British officials say Major cannot be too harsh in his comments about the IRA, lest breakaway factions decide to ignore the cease-fire, resume terrorist activity, and destroy the peace process.
London security sources say the next phase in the quest for a permanent peace will consist of mutual confidence-building measures. On the British side, troops deployed in Northern Ireland will likely spend less time in street patrols and stay more often in their barracks. Also, some IRA members held in British jails will likely be moved to Northern Ireland and have the conditions of their confinement eased.
Major's officials say he is already considering an end to the ban that prevents broadcast of IRA members' voices. On Wednesday, the British Broadcasting Corporation called for an immediate lifting of the ban.
Authorities in London and Belfast will be seeking clear signs that IRA attacks have ceased and that Gerry Adams, president of Sinn Fein (the IRA's political wing), is prepared to be flexible in arranging future exploratory talks with the government.
Hovering in the background as Major, Reynolds, Adams, and other leaders attempt to move beyond the cease-fire statement, is the prospect of substantial American support for Northern Ireland. All sides in the conflict know that support will not be forthcoming if a genuine cease-fire fails to materialize.
The European Union has also offered to boost economic aid to the province if the cease-fire holds and constitutional talks get under way.
British Army and security sources greeted the cease-fire with a reminder to the news media that the IRA and unionist paramilitary units possess large quantities of weapons and explosives. The IRA alone has about 600 semiautomatic rifles donated by Libya in the 1980s, as well as many rocket launchers and about three tons of Semtex plastic explosive, the sources estimate.
There is widespread concern that until arms and explosives are handed over, they may be used to resume terrorist campaigns or fall into the hands of criminals associated with the IRA and unionist paramilitaries. The IRA's cease-fire statement did not mention an arms hand-over.
Analysts say the two politicians most capable of ensuring the cease-fire becomes permanent and results in a political settlement are Adams and Mr. Molyneaux. Paul Bew, a specialist in Irish politics at Queen's University, Belfast, says Molyneaux, as leader of ``mainstream unionism,'' needs to show ``imagination and generosity'' in responding to the cease-fire. Without that kind of response, ``a real opportunity for peace'' could be lost.