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LONGTIME FOES LAID WEAPONS DOWN IN N. IRELAND

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The impossible happened in Northern Ireland during 1994: The Irish Republican Army and the Protestant paramilitaries put aside their weapons and began to talk of peace for the first time in 25 years.

Despite the achievement, an uneasiness still hangs over the province. On the streets, in the shops and pubs, the atmosphere is tinged with the feeling that violence could only be a heartbeat away.Armed soldiers and flak-jacketed police officers in armored vehicles have all but faded into the winter mists, yet it all seems too good to be true.

Only months before the IRA declared a cease-fire in September and the Protestant paramilitaries joined them in October, the two sides had been engaged in an escalating campaign of murder and bombings.

The Downing Street Declaration, agreed between the British and Irish governments Dec. 15, 1993, had disappeared under an avalanche of bodies, bombed buildings and crippled victims as the paramilitaries marked the New Year with a devastating wave of atrocities.

While the eyes of the world had focused on the tiny province and its 1.5 million people, concerned Irish Americans made hurried plans to send fact-finding teams of politicians and industrialists to Ireland in an attempt to kick-start the peace process.

But it was the Kennedy family that stole the limelight in February when it became embroiled in a media circus as Paul Hill, son-in-law to Ethel Kennedy, returned to his native Belfast to appeal a life sentence for the murder of a soldier 12 years earlier.

The appeal was successful, but not before a huge entourage from the Kennedy clan had flown into the province in a spectacular show of support for Hill, whose experiences were highlighted by the film "In the Name of the Father."

Behind the scenes, the U.S. fact-finding missions were playing a secret role in the peace process by persuading the IRA and its enemies in the Ulster Volunteer Force and the Ulster Defense Association to rethink their strategy.

That along with secret lines of communication between the para-militaries and the British and Irish governments culminated in the first tenuous steps along the road to peace.

By late spring, government ministers in London and Dublin had become snagged on the question of territorial control of Northern Ireland, the Irish refusing to delete the relevant Articles 2 and 3 from their constitution. Premier Albert Reynolds said that would be impossible without a referendum.

They agreed to "shelve" the matter to concentrate on the issue of winning the IRA's support for the peace declaration. Laborious exchanges on clarification of the finer points of the declaration continued between the IRA and London for months before Sinn Fein finally rejected it on July 28.

On the surface, violent conflict continued, and for the British, their intelligence forces were dealt a catastrophic blow when 29 men died after a helicopter en route to a secret intelligence conference crashed onto the Mull of Kintyre, a mountain on the west coast of Scotland, on June 2.

On board were 27 senior members of the British intelligence services, including MI5, Army Intelligence and the Royal Ulster Constabulary's Special Branch. The chief constable of the RUC, Sir Hugh Annesley, could not hide the devastation it had inflicted on the "fight against terrorism." He publicly admitted it had been "a catastrophic blow" that had set intelligence operations back years.

The disaster injected new enthusiasm into the secret communications with the IRA.

By August, the secret lines of communication had been exposed by the IRA in a blatant, and successful, attempt to embarrass the British. Unionist politicians in Ulster protested their fury. Beleaguered Secretary of State Patrick Mayhew was forced to admit in Parliament that communications had taken place.

The IRA hailed it as a huge propaganda strike and quickly followed it with its historic "total cessation of military operations" midnight Aug. 31.

Six weeks after the IRA cease-fire, the loyalists, who had been holding secret talks with politicians and churchmen, announced their own cease-fire on Oct. 13.

The death toll in the 25-year conflict had reached 3,171.

The British government responded to the silence of the IRA guns by holding historic exploratory talks with Sinn Fein Dec. 9..

It was the first formal contact between the British and Sinn Fein since the partition of Ireland in 1921 and was hailed by both the Irish and British governments as a positive step in bringing Sinn Fein in from the cold.