PRIME Minister John Major is bidding to speed up the Northern Ireland peace process by offering finely balanced concessions to both sides in the long-running dispute about the province's future.
Leaders of the Protestant majority have welcomed the British leader's promise Friday that there will be no change in Northern Ireland's constitutional status as part of the United Kingdom unless the people of the province approve it in a referendum.
For their part, the Irish Republican Army (IRA) and Sinn Fein, its political wing, have responded guardedly to Mr. Major's decision to lift the six-year-old ban, which prevented their members' voices being broadcast in the United Kingdom.
Irish Prime Minister Albert Reynolds, who is visiting Australia, yesterday welcomed Britain's announcement of a referendum, calling it a logical development in the Irish peace process.
In another move aimed at pleasing Sinn Fein and more-moderate nationalist groups, Major ordered 10 border crossings between Northern Ireland and the Irish Republic to be opened. In the past, the crossings have been used by IRA paramilitaries to carry out terrorist acts.
Goal: a two-way cease-fire
British officials say the prime minister's initiatives are his initial response to the IRA's Aug. 31 cease-fire declaration. The officials stressed the offer of a referendum which, they say, is intended as an incentive to Protestant paramilitary groups to lay down their arms and make the cease-fire a two-way affair.
Senior figures in the official Ulster Unionist Party say the guarantee of a referendum is an encouragement to the Protestant paramilitaries to match the IRA's cease-fire, even though Sinn Fein President Gerry Adams has yet to describe the cease-fire as permanent.
Peter Robinson, deputy leader of the Democratic Unionist Party, said the referendum promise was ``a step forward.'' He indicated that his party might be prepared to join talks with British government ministers on the political future of Northern Ireland. Until now the DUP has been hostile to talks with British ministers.
Government sources in London and Dublin have been at pains to indicate that both Major and Mr. Reynolds want to promote the peace process by adopting measures and making statements calculated to build confidence on both sides of the sectarian divide.
No hurry on unity
Reynolds said yesterday there was no hurry about deciding the political and constitutional future of Northern Ireland. In an interview with the London Observer newspaper he said he did not foresee a united Ireland for at least a generation: ``Let the people decide if they want a change, and if in 25 years' time or 20 years' time or whatever, they feel there's more benefit that way than the other, well fine, let them make the decision.''
Irish officials commented privately that Reynolds wanted Protestant paramilitaries to realize that by agreeing to a cease-fire, they would not be agreeing to a specific political timetable for Northern Ireland.
Before Major left on a tour of Africa, Downing Street officials indicated that the prime minister was happy with the response to his latest moves. He is far from content, however, about the apparent readiness of the Clinton administration to grant a visa to Mr. Adams.
British sources confirmed at the weekend that Major wanted the granting of a visa to be made conditional on Adams stating categorically that the IRA cease-fire was permanent. But it appears the US has rejected the British request and will grant a visa anyway, for a visit beginning as early as this weekend.
Adams and Martin McGuinness, his deputy, show little sign of easing the pressure on the Major government to agree to an early withdrawal of British troops from Northern Ireland.
Just hours after the end of the broadcasting ban, which had required actors to speak the words of IRA and Sinn Fein members, Mr. McGuinness went on live television and called for ``the removal of all occupying forces'' from the province.
McGuinness also indicated that Sinn Fein might not accept the validity of a referendum held in Northern Ireland alone: ``The conflict will not be resolved until it is resolved on an all-Ireland basis.''
``If we get agreement at the end of the discussions that are going on, certainly a referendum in the North and South is the logical development,'' Reynolds told reporters yesterday in Perth, Australia.
Reynolds also said that the security threat in the North had been decreasing since the IRA's cease-fire declaration Aug. 31 and there was no need now to have the British Army in Northern Ireland for all time: ``Their use indeed won't be required because if there's no security threat, there's no need for the British Army.''