Like pieces of a fiendishly difficult jigsaw puzzle, the reasons for hope that the crisis in Northern Ireland may be brought to an end are falling into place.
At noon yesterday the Irish Republican Army restored its cease-fire. It had been shattered by the massive explosion of an IRA bomb at Canary Wharf in London in February 1996.
"We want a permanent peace and therefore we are prepared to enhance the search for a democratic peace settlement through real and inclusive negotiations," the IRA said in a statement released Saturday that restored its August 1994 cease-fire.
But this is not the only puzzle piece that is helping to foster hope that the two sides will find a way to put an end to this long and violent sectarian struggle.
Other key turning points in the last three months have included:
* The election of new governments in Britain (May 1) and Ireland (June 6).
* A decision by British Prime Minister Tony Blair to soften the terms for Sinn Fein, the IRA's political wing, to enter peace talks.
* The unexpected willingness of Ulster Unionists, announced July 12, to forgo some of their most provocative marches through Catholic areas.
But when the history of the conflict is written, it may be that the factor that precipitated this new breakthrough was a threat made jointly by Mr. Blair and new Irish Prime Minister Bertie Ahern.
Earlier this month, the two leaders warned both sides that if peace talks between politicians collapsed, they would put the outlines of a settlement to the voters of Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland in a referendum next year. This threat to go over the heads of the warring political parties and seek the views of ordinary people, weary of bombings and shootings, appears to have hit home, especially with Sinn Fein leader Gerry Adams.
Mr. Adams and his deputy, Martin McGuinness, both won seats in the British House of Commons in the May 1 elections. Despite their personal victories, they are aware that opinion polls in Northern Ireland and Ireland long have indicated a desperate desire for peace. A referendum would probably leave Sinn Fein isolated.
But the Blair-Ahern threat would have had little effect if the two leaders had not offered a sweetener to Sinn Fein and the IRA. They accepted a suggestion by former United States Sen. George Mitchell, chairman of the peace talks, that the IRA could be allowed to begin decommissioning its weapons while talks took place. Earlier Britain had insisted that weapons had to be handed in before Sinn Fein could take seats at the negotiating table.
Sinn Fein now expects to join the talks when they resume Sept. 15. If by next May no progress is registered, London and Dublin could call for a referendum in both parts of Ireland.
In short, all parties to the dispute will set a deadline for resolving their differences. They will know that if peace talks result in nine months of no progress, the issue of peace will be taken from their hands and given to the people as a referendum.
Eleven people in Northern Ireland have died since the IRA abandoned its cease-fire 17 months ago. Their deaths bring to 3,225 the number of people killed in the British province since the start of the violence in 1969.
At separate church services across Northern Ireland, Catholics and Protestants prayed for this cease-fire to last longer than the IRA truce of Sept. 1, 1994, which ended with a one-ton truck bomb exploding in London.
But three Irish newspapers, each quoting unidentified IRA sources, said IRA commanders will withdraw the new truce, officially open-ended, after four months if there isn't progress in negotiations.
At Clonnard Monastery, just before the cease-fire took effect yesterday, Katie O'Donnell led a west Belfast Catholic congregation in prayer that "all sections of our society may open their hearts to the prospect of peace and work together for a political settlement that is fair to all."
Blair now must persuade the biggest Protestant party, the Ulster Unionists, to stay at the peace table. He meets Ulster Unionist leader David Trimble today. Mr. Trimble has demanded specific commitments that the IRA begin disarming if Sinn Fein enters the talks.
The British and Irish governments have called for "due progress" on disarmament by the IRA and pro-British paramilitary groups, which remain officially committed to an October 1994 cease-fire. Ulster Unionists are threatening to veto a plan outlining how the disarmament will be handled in the talks. The plan is to be voted on at the talks on Wednesday.
* Material from the Associated Press was used in this report.