Hopes for a fresh breakthrough in the Northern Ireland peace process have begun to rise as the clock ticks toward the June 10 date for all-party talks.
The Irish Republican Army has yet to renew its cease-fire, which the British government says it must do before its political wing, Sinn Fein, will be allowed to join the talks. Yet London has made a smaller, but key, concession in the wake of elections held in Northern Ireland May 30. Britain's Northern Ireland Secretary Sir Patrick Mayhew said on Saturday that Sinn Fein, the IRA's political wing, could enter peace talks before the IRA itself begins handing in its weapons.
Mr. Mayhew's statement showed how much the May 30 vote - in which Northern Ireland voters chose a special forum due to meet for the June 10 talks - strengthened the bargaining position of Sinn Fein president Gerry Adams. His party won 17 seats out of the 110 total, and 15.5 percent of the overall poll - its best result ever in any Northern Ireland election, and up 3.1 percent from its showing in 1993 local elections.
The Ulster Unionists (UUP), the region's main Protestant party that favors maintaining British rule, won first place with 30 seats. Yet Sinn Fein's gains are symbolically important. In a heavy turnout, the party notched up 53 percent of the vote in Catholic West Belfast - a center of nationalist sentiment. It pushed the Catholic and moderate Social Democratic and Labour Party (SDLP) into second place there.
SDLP supporters later admitted that many of their usual supporters had thrown their support behind Sinn Fein for tactical reasons.
"Many voters evidently felt that there would be a better chance of kick-starting the peace process if they backed Sinn Fein on this occasion rather than ourselves," a SDLP party worker said.
Mr. Adams hailed the election result as "a clear success" for Sinn Fein. "I hope now we can move on to real talks," he said Saturday, saying the poll outcome "strengthens our mandate." He added that a cease-fire was "unlikely in the new circumstances."
Officials in Britain's Northern Ireland Office said Saturday that Mayhew's softer position on arms handover should be regarded as significant but continued to stress the need for a cease-fire.
Mayhew appears to have concluded that the province's unionist parties, though angry, have been jolted by the boost in Sinn Fein's electoral support.
Martyn Smith, a leading Ulster Unionist member of the British Parliament in London, said Mayhew "should resign" if he was prepared to allow Sinn Fein into talks "without taking a step towards arms decommissioning."
David Wilshire, vice chairman of the Conservative backbench committee on Northern Ireland in the House of Commons, accused Mayhew of "hauling up the white flag" for the IRA.
The British government, however, seems to be calculating that the unionists will find it difficult to discount the growth in Sinn Fein's electoral support.
It is ironic that David Trimble, leader of the UUP, argued the need for elections to begin with. Although his party won a better result than Sinn Fein's, the balance of support between the two parties scarcely justifies his contention that Sinn Fein lacks a mandate.
"British ministers will come under pressure to allow Sinn Fein into the talks regardless of a cease-fire announcement," says political analyst John Kampfner.