BRITISH officials are preparing for a pre-Christmas conference with Sinn Fein, the Irish Republican Army's political wing, following a pledge by Prime Minister John Major to accelerate the Northern Ireland peace process.
Mr. Major and his Irish counterpart, Albert Reynolds, were set to meet near London today to hammer out a framework for official contacts among the British and Irish governments, the main parties in Northern Ireland and - for the first time - the Sinn Fein leadership.
The meeting follows a turnaround in London's attitude toward Ulster, as Major spoke this weekend of a ``quantum leap'' having been achieved in the quest for an end to 25 years of war in Northern Ireland.
Major has also ordered the convening of an international conference in Ulster's captial, Belfast, in December to discuss investment in the province's economy. This could decrease the high unemployment rate, now at 13 percent in Ulster, and help soften social tensions.
The British leader's upbeat announcements came during a two-day visit to the province in which he accepted that the IRA's Aug. 31 cease-fire was permanent, lifted the ban prohibiting Sinn Fein leaders from visiting Britain, opened all border crossings between Northern Ireland and the Irish Republic, and promised to review the presence of British troops in the province.
For six weeks after the IRA declared an end to hostilities, the British government stuck to a cautious line, demanding that the IRA use the word ``permanent'' to describe the cease-fire. But in mid-October Protestant paramilitaries declared their own cease-fire.
This appears to have triggered London's readiness to accelerate the peace process in line with urging by Dublin, and set the clock ticking in the run-up to a settlement.
In an address to the Institute of Directors in Belfast, Major said Britain was making ``a working assumption that the cease-fire is intended to be permanent.''
What Major described as a breakthrough provoked a bitter response from the Rev. Ian Paisley, leader of the Democratic Unionists Party, who accused the prime minister of betrayal and swore that his party would not be attending the planned constitutional talks.
Sources in the larger official Ulster Unionist Party, however, indicated that it was likely to be represented at the promised discussions. UUP leader James Molyneaux has taken a moderate line, though he has demanded that the IRA hand in its weapons, including large quantities of Semtex plastic explosives.
Arrangements for an IRA arms handover are expected to figure high on the agenda of the talks Major has forecast between British officials and Sinn Fein.
The Dublin government is now preparing steps that may help in this context. Reynolds and his ministers hope to hold the first meeting of a cross-party Forum for Peace and Reconciliation in about a week.
The forum, which will exist for about a year, will provide an opportunity for Sinn Fein leaders to discuss their approach to the constitutional process. Reynolds, Dublin officials say, wants to impress Sinn Fein with the need to build the confidence of Ulster's Protestant community.
Readiness by the IRA to begin handing in its weapons would be a key confidence-builder, the officials say, but there would have to be reciprocal moves by unionist paramilitary groups.
IN Belfast, Major outlined British plans for the reform of government in Northern Ireland, which is ruled directly from London. He plans to propose an assembly elected by proportional representation to ensure that the Catholic minority is given a fair say in local matters.
Major said: ``We need to restore local accountability.... Neither a purely internal solution nor a return to domination of one side by the other would achieve this. Local democracy requires support across the community.''
A lasting peace could be guaranteed only when the IRA and loyalist groups had surrendered their guns and explosives, he said.
Lifting the exclusion orders on Sinn Fein leaders is an important milestone in the search for a permanent settlement. For the past 10 years Gerry Adams, leader of Sinn Fein, and Martin McGuinness, his deputy, have been banned from entering mainland Britain.
Mr. Adams, who paid a two-week visit to the US earlier this month, said Major's latest moves were ``encouraging.'' He despatched Mr. McGuinness to London where he planned to make appearances on British television.