LONDON -- In a significant move toward achieving peace in Northern Ireland, Prime Minister John Major agreed yesterday to begin exploratory talks before the end of the year with Sinn Fein, the political wing of the Irish republican movement.
His commitment means that the struggle for peace in Northern Ireland is soon to enter a new phase -- direct talks between the British government and Sinn Fein.
Although Sinn Fein leaders had never declared the Sept. 1 cease-fire to be "permanent," as the British government had demanded, Mr. Major insisted yesterday that their actions "have been more compelling than their words."
"Walls have been going up where we should have spent the past 25 years breaking them down," Mr. Major said. "We cannot make up 25 lost years overnight. We shall have to make Herculean efforts."
More than 3,000 people have died in sectarian violence in the 25 years since the Irish Republican Army began its campaign against British rule in Northern Ireland.
In a speech in Belfast, Mr. Major said he was prepared to make the working assumption that the 7-week-old IRA cease-fire was "permanent."
"This means we can move carefully toward the beginning of dialogue between Sinn Fein and the government," he said.
The preliminary dialogue would be "crucial," he said.
"It will explore how Sinn Fein can make the transition to normal political life; how it could enter the political talks itself," he said.
Caution has been Mr. Major's watchword since the IRA cease-fire declaration Aug. 31. The British government and Sinn Fein quibbled over whether the IRA's announcement of "a complete cessation of violence" meant a permanent renunciation armed struggle.
Mr. Major has sometimes seemed behind the curve as Irish Prime Minister Albert Reynolds pressed for faster movement toward peace, Sinn Fein leader Gerry Adams toured the United States, and Protestant paramilitaries announced their own cease-fire.
He has carefully reassured pro-British unionists that there would be no change in the status of Northern Ireland without the consent of a majority of the voters living there. Protestant loyalists are a majority in Northern Ireland.
In yesterday's speech, Mr. Major made two other gestures designed to reduce animosity between Britain and the Irish republican movement.
One was to lift the ban on travel to Britain by Mr. Adams and Martin McGuinness, Sinn Fein vice president. They had been banned from travel to England, Scotland and Wales since 1982.
"They are free to travel anywhere within the United Kingdom," Mr. Major said, "provided they remain committed to the democratic process."
The other step was to open 88 roads still closed between Northern Ireland and the Irish Republic to the south. The roads had been sealed by the British over the past 20 years in an attempt to cut off escape and supply routes for the IRA along the 300-mile border.
Mr. McGuinness said he "broadly welcomed" Mr. Major's speech.
"At last, a move in the right direction from the British prime minster," Mr. McGuinness told a television news show. "We have the British government showing a degree of imagination."
He said he had no immediate plans to visit Britain. But the talks should take place "sooner rather than later," he said. And he called for removal of British troops from Northern Ireland.
"It is quite clear," Mr. McGuinness said, "we must build up on all of this, and alongside Britain's recognition that the talks must take place, we must also accept that there has to be a fairly fTC rapid demilitarization."
The issue of IRA arms, he said, was something that should be taken up "some way down the road."
Mr. Major set no target date for the removal of British troops.
"We shall keep as many policemen and troops as we need for as long as we need to protect the people of Northern Ireland," he said. "It is our firm objective to return to exclusively civilian policing."
Mr. Major and Mr. Reynolds will meet in Britain on Monday to work on a "joint framework document" that will deal with furthering the peace process.
Mr. Major's announcement yesterday was the latest in a series of moves that have occurred since December, when he and Mr. Reynolds signed the Downing Street Declaration, signaling a more urgent search for peace by the two governments. They met in response to a "peace process" initiated by Mr. Adams and John Hume, leader of the Social Democratic and Labor Party, the largest Irish nationalistic party in the north.
This was followed by the IRA cease-fire declaration seven weeks ago and a similar declaration several weeks afterward by the Protestant unionist side.
Not including secret contacts between the government and Sinn Fein in 1993 and perhaps in 1981, the last time there was a publicly acknowledged meeting between British and Sinn Fein officials was in 1975.
Sensitive to anxieties in Northern Ireland's majority Protestant population, Mr. Major pledged that any joint document worked out with Mr. Reynolds would be made public.
The Ulster Unionist Party, led by loyalist James Molyneaux, seemed prepared to place its trust in Mr. Major's assurances.
The Democratic Unionist Party of the Rev. Ian Paisley was not. "It's a surrender to terrorism," said Peter Robinson, the party's deputy leader.