Britain's new prime minister, Tony Blair, is bidding to kick-start the Northern Ireland peace process amid rising hopes that a breakthrough may be possible.
But he and Northern Ireland Secretary Marjorie Mowlam, nearly three weeks after the Labour Party won a landslide election, are warning Irish Republican Army terrorists that they must order a credible cease-fire soon, or be excluded from a political settlement.
Mr. Blair underlined his determination to break the peace process deadlock by visiting Northern Ireland on Friday. He announced there that British government officials were ready to meet with representatives of Sinn Fein, the political wing of the IRA, before a cease-fire, but only to find out whether they really want peace. If the meeting yielded no sign of goodwill, Blair warned, the IRA would sideline itself from the peace process.
Since Labour has an overwhelming majority within Parliament, Blair can operate with much greater freedom on the subject of Northern Ireland than could his predecessor in office, John Major. In order to preserve the Conservative Party's very small majority in Parliament, Mr. Major had to be very cautious not to offend representatives of the Protestant minority in Northern Ireland.
Blair's comments triggered a rapid series of related - and apparently encouraging - political moves.
On Saturday, Sinn Fein President Gerry Adams met with Irish government officials. And yesterday, Sinn Fein announced that Martin McGuinness, its top political strategist, would head a Republican team for talks in London with senior civil servants later this week. If Sinn Fein wants to be a part of the peace process, observers say that it must maintain good contacts with the Irish government as well as convince the British government that it is ready to wholeheartedly participate in the peace process.
Both Mr. Adams and Mr. McGuinness were recently elected to the British Parliament. They have not yet taken their seats though, since to do so they must swear allegiance to the British queen.
In announcing that he was ready to make "one further effort" to secure peace in Northern Ireland after a quarter century of violence between Catholic and Protestant groups, Blair had a warning for Sinn Fein and the IRA. He declared: "The settlement train is leaving. I want you on that train. But it is leaving anyway and I will not allow it to wait for you. You cannot hold the process to ransom any longer, so end the violence now."
John Hume, nationalist leader of Northern Ireland's Social Democrat and Labour Party and a leading figure in earlier peace moves, warmly welcomed Blair's initiative: "It is the most comprehensive speech made by any British Prime Minister in the last 25 years."
But Blair's officials remain cautious, although they say privately that preliminary talks with Sinn Fein could open within days.
"The ball is definitely in the IRA's court. Gerry Adams has been undercut by the terrorists before. If the promised talks are held and violence still continues it will have to be concluded that he is no longer in control," says a senior government source.
British government sources also indicate that at the top of the agenda for Sinn Fein's talks with officials in London would be a demand for an early cease-fire declaration by the IRA. The sources say the declaration must be accompanied by tangible evidence that the cease-fire is permanent.
This implies that even if Adams and McGuinness persuade London that they are serious about peace, there may have to be a delay before substantive negotiations begin.
The next round of political talks between the British government and Northern Ireland politicians is scheduled for June 3. Mowlam's advisers say it is unlikely Sinn Fein can provide the required assurances by that date. Much now will depend on the tone of the promised talks with Sinn Fein.