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WILL GROUPS JOIN IRA IN CEASE-FIRE?

The promise of a referendum on Northern Ireland's future may encourage pro-British gunmen to join the IRA in a cease-fire, a politician close to Protestant extremists said Saturday.

"I have no doubt that (the paramilitary groups) will be weighing his words up as we speak," said David Ervine, referring to Prime Minister John Major's pledge Friday of a referendum. Ervine's fringe Progressive Unionist Party is linked to the outlawed Ulster Volunteer Force (UVF)."I would hope that their fears, and the fears of the people as a whole, in many ways have been assuaged by the prime minister's statement," Ervine told BBC radio.

Irish Prime Minister Albert Reynolds also assured Northern Ireland's Protestants, saying a united Ireland is only a distant possibility.

"If we can get a new accommodation as to how the whole island is to go forward, if we can get economic cooperation and demonstrate the benefits of it, let the whole situation evolve, because it will take a generation anyway, to get people to understand," he said in an interview with The Observer, a British Sunday newspaper.

Major said the referendum was intended to assure Protestant "unionists" that there have been no secret deals with the Irish Republican Army.

The UVF and the outlawed Ulster Defense Association, both based in Protestant areas, have killed two Catholics since the IRA announced a cease-fire on Aug. 31. The UVF also planted a bomb Monday on a Dublin-bound train, injuring two people.

Protestants, the majority in Northern Ireland, overwhelmingly support the province's links with Britain, and a referendum appears to rule out any immediate possibility of a united Ireland.

Martin McGuinness, a leader of Sinn Fein, the IRA's political arm, said Saturday that any settlement reached by negotiation "will have to be put to all the Irish people."

Prime Minister Albert Reynolds said Friday that he planned to hold a simultaneous referendum in the Irish Republic on any Northern Ireland settlement. Sinn Fein hasn't said whether this meets its demands.

Sammy Wilson, a spokesman for Paisley's Democratic Unionist Party, said he was encouraged by Major's offer.

IRA supporters, meanwhile, clashed with British soldiers and police Saturday in Catholic west Belfast. There were no arrests.

"Local people just came out of their houses and attacked the patrol," said a spokesman for the Royal Ulster Constabulary, Northern Ireland's mostly Protestant police force.

In west Belfast, a few youths threw rocks at armored police cars, and others who tried to peel away corrugated metal panels on a security fence were sprayed with water.