Signaling growing confidence that the Irish Republican Army's cease-fire is permanent, Prime Minister John Major on Friday lifted a ban on broadcasting the voices of IRA supporters.
In a second concession, Britain ordered the re-opening of 10 secondary roads across the Irish border. And in a gesture to wary Protestants, Major promised a referendum within Northern Ireland on any agreement on the province's future reached in all-party negotiations.The measures were the latest in a series of initiatives by Britain, Ireland and the IRA to resolve the bloody 24-year conflict over Northern Ireland. Hope for an end to the strife increased dramatically with the IRA's announcement of a cease-fire on Aug. 31.
The end of the broadcasting ban was effective immediately, Major said, and supporters of all paramilitary groups - both from the Catholic minority and the Protestant majority - were now free to argue their cases.
Major said he remained skeptical of whether the IRA had permanently abandoned violence.
"Go and ask Sinn Fein directly yourself, are there any circumstances in which you would take up violence again, or are there no circumstances?" Major told a news conference.
"Let them tell us there are no circumstances. They can use their own words."
Reports that Major was about to lift the ban brought some protests from Protestant unionists, who have been alarmed by the pace of events since the IRA cease-fire announcement.
Irish Prime Minister Albert Reynolds, who has been prodding Britain to make some gesture to the IRA, said in a newspaper article published Thursday that British reluctance was being used by Protestant gunmen as an excuse to continue killing.
Major's predecessor, Margaret Thatcher, banned the voices of IRA supporters from British broadcast media in October 1988, saying she aimed to deny terrorists "the oxygen of publicity."
Broadcasters got around the ban by using actors to dub the comments of Sinn Fein president Gerry Adams and other republican activists.
The Irish Republic had banned Irish Republican Army supporters from its broadcast media in 1971, but lifted the ban on Feb. 19 as it worked to coax the IRA to call off its violent campaign against British rule in Northern Ireland.
Before Major's announcement, Ken Maginnis, a lawmaker from the Ulster Unionist Party, said he had no objection to eventually lifting the broadcast ban, but would "mind very much" if if were done today.
Maginnis complained that Sinn Fein was being admitted "with far too much haste into the real world of politics."
Since the IRA cease-fire, Sinn Fein activists have been forcing open some border roads. Security forces have moved in quickly to shut them again.
The reopened roads are all in County Fermanagh, in the southwest corner of the province. Sir Patrick Mayhew, the Cabinet official responsible for Northern Ireland, said police and army commanders had advised that the roads could be safely reopened.
"We will continue to watch carefully to see whether, following a campaign of terror lasting over 25 years, the words of the Provisional IRA and those who speak for them are matched by events on the ground," Mayhew said.
"If necessary crossings will be closed again."