With expectations rising here and in Northern Ireland that the outlawed Irish Republican Army is about to announce a cease-fire in the North, the British government indicated flexibility this weekend on the IRA's basic demand: an end to the partition of Ireland.
On Saturday, the Northern Ireland Office, the seat of British authority in the province, said that the section of the Northern Ireland Act of 1920 that established partition is now irrelevant and "pretty much a red herring."The statement said other laws had superseded the act and allowed a change in Northern Ireland's status if the majority of the population there wanted it. Protestant political leaders oppose severing Northern Ireland from Britain.
The statement appeared to be the most significant of a series of recent British attempts to make concessions to the IRA.
Two weeks ago, the head of British security in the North said a cease-fire could lead to reduced army patrols, an apparent response to IRA demands for "demilitarization." The British have 17,500 troops in Northern Ireland.
Partition, agreed to in 1922 by Britain and the newly independent Irish Free State, is at the heart of the overwhelmingly Roman Catholic IRA's violent campaign to end British rule in the predominantly Protestant province and incorporate it into a united Ireland. The partition question has also divided the governments of Ireland and Britain on legal grounds, with both claiming sovereignty over the North.
Government officials and analysts said on Sunday that the British statement would be welcome to the IRA and its political wing, Sinn Fein, and the Irish government, which has repeatedly indicated a willingness to modify its claim to sovereignty in the North, but only if Britain changed the 1920 act. They said that the statement fit a pattern of recent statements by British officials to indicate political flexibility and to encourage the IRA to end its campaign of violence.
"It has all been carefully choreographed, for all this to be coming at the same time," said Paul Arthur, a professor of politics at Ulster University, in Belfast. He added that for the Northern Ireland Office "to send out a fax on Saturday is unusual, but so much of our politics are concerned with symbolism. It is another way to tell the IRA that Britain is flexible."
He said that most Republican officials in the North now felt that the IRA would call an open-ended cease-fire within the next few weeks. Such a cease-fire would not fulfill the demands of the British and Irish governments that a permanent cessation of violence was necessary before they agreed to peace negotiations with the IRA or Sinn Fein.