THE British government has achieved the key breakthrough it has been looking for in its quest for peace in Northern Ireland.
The province's loyalist paramilitary groups, which have fought to keep the province part of the United Kingdom, yesterday declared a cease-fire to match that announced by the Irish Republican Army six weeks ago.
The Combined Loyalist Military Command, an umbrella organization for the Ulster Volunteer Force and Ulster Freedom Fighters, told a Belfast news conference that they will ``universally cease all operational hostilities'' and that their cease-fire will last as long as that of the IRA.
The statement promises an end to sectarian killings that have torn Ulster apart for 25 years. British Prime Minister John Major welcomed the statement as ``unannealed good news.''
Albert Reynolds, prime minister of the Irish Republic, said the point had been reached where it was now vital to ``act urgently'' to build a lasting peace.
British officials said the peace declaration by the two main loyalist paramilitary organizations was the starting point of a political process that would be aimed at ending direct rule of the province from London.
The first political talks among constitutional parties are likely to begin in a few weeks following the publication, probably before Christmas, of a ``framework document'' that would provide the building blocks of a new Northern Ireland political settlement.
The breakthrough on the Protestant side was achieved Monday, British officials said, when a group of loyalist politicians visited the Maze prison in Belfast and spoke to loyalist paramilitaries jailed for terrorist offenses.
Members of the Progressive Unionists and the Ulster Democrats - two fringe parties with links to the paramilitary groups - advised the prisoners that the British government's promise of a referendum to decide the province's constitutional future offered safeguards against Northern Ireland's incorporation into the Irish Republic against the will of the Protestant majority.
If both sides are able to enforce the cease-fire, it will mean an end to 25 years of violence in Northern Ireland.
The Loyalist announcement came just as Britain's Conservative Party was about to debate Northern Ireland at its annual conference. The breakthrough was described by Mr. Major as ``the development we have all been hoping for.
LOYALISTS have killed some l,000 people in Northern Ireland and the Irish Republic since fighting began. In the last two years, they have been responsible for more terrorist killings than has the IRA. Since the IRA called for a ``complete cessation'' of violence, they have been under pressure to stop.
Sir Patrick Mayhew, Major's Northern Ireland secretary, said he hoped that, as violence recedes into the distance, ``people will feel less inhibited about sitting down and talking through future problems of Northern Ireland.''
He made clear he was referring to the constitutional parties and stressed it was too soon to say whether former paramilitary organizations would be able to join talks on the future of Ulster.
That, however, is the longer-term goal. British officials say that once Major is satisfied that the cease-fire is holding on both sides, plans will go ahead for inviting representatives of republican and unionist paramilitary groups to join in political talks.
Part of the preparation will be the publication of a framework document setting guidelines for a future Northern Ireland settlement. Officials say the document is already in draft form and could be published in a few weeks.
Senior ministers attending the Conservative Party conference said the Loyalist paramilitaries' move would probably make it easier for the British government to acknowledge that the IRA cease-fire is intended to be permanent.
So far, Gerry Adams, leader of the IRA's political wing, Sinn Fein, has refused to say the cease-fire on his side is permanent. British ministers, however, are reported to have been considering a formula under which they would hold a ``working assumption'' that the IRA had renounced violence for good.
If that point can be reached, Britain is expected to lift the ban on Mr. Adams visiting mainland Britain.
The British government's delight at the matching loyalist cease-fire reflects its anxiety to begin scaling down the number of troops it keeps in Northern Ireland.
Adams has called for a rapid military withdrawal, but Major has made it clear that the British presence will be scaled down gradually, in line with security conditions in the province.