BELFAST, Northern Ireland -- While the warring militants of the Irish Republican Army and the Combined Loyalist Military Command cautiously ponder the Anglo-Irish peace program, John Hume, the nonviolent leader who started the process, talks as if the men of violence are becoming irrelevant.
Mr. Hume, the leader of the Social Democratic and Labor Party (SDLP), said Saturday he believed a process had begun that would bring peace no matter what the militants decide.
"I believe there is a real mass desire among all sections of our people to finish the violence and to have peace and reach agreement," he said.
He believes that desire will prove irresistible.
The thrust toward the Anglo-Irish agreement began when Mr. Hume, a moderate nationalist, reached out to Gerry Adams, who president of the Sinn Fein, the political wing of militant republicanism and voice of the outlawed Irish Republican Army.
Hopes raised by the Hume-Adams initiative announced at the end of September bore fruit in the Downing Street Declaration signed in London on Wednesday by British Prime Minister John Major and Irish Prime Minister Albert Reynolds.
The joint declaration offers Sinn Fein a role in negotiations after theIRA demonstrates it has renounced violence by three months of peace. The declaration also envisaged the possibility of a united Ireland but said that Northern Ireland's Protestants would have to agree.
As many as 100 IRA leaders were said to be meeting last weekend to decide on their response to the Reynolds-Major proposals. Several more weeks of IRA talks are expected on the plan to try to end 25 years of bloodshed and protests against British rule in Northern Ireland.
Mr. Reynolds warned yesterday that Ireland will order tougher measures against the IRA if it rejects the peace plan and resumes full-scale violence. He indicated that the British and Irish governments may reward the IRA with amnesties for jailed members if the IRA joins the negotiations.
Shortly after Mr. Reynolds made his remarks in an interview with the British Broadcasting Corp., the IRA triggered its first major bomb since the peace offer.
The blast in Londonderry, Northern Ireland, narrowly missed a passing army patrol and a car carrying two adults and three children. There were no injuries, but police said the adults and children had to be treated for shock after a 500-pound bomb exploded.
Mr. Hume, a longtime civil rights campaigner who helped found the SDLP, was at a festive pre-Christmas party meeting in Roman Catholic West Belfast when he talked to reporters.
"I believe that the substance of what we agreed is in the joint declaration," Mr. Hume said. "The dialogue I've had with Mr. Adams over a long period of time convinced me of their seriousness in seeking lasting peace," he said.
He bristled as he said, "I am not a messenger for the IRA or Sinn Fein. They speak for themselves, and they have to decide. If the dialogue takes place in an atmosphere of peace for the first time, it's a new ball game. I'm very hopeful."
"We can only move step by step by step toward our objective," he said. "The first major step toward lasting peace has been taken in this joint declaration. The next step is the detailed consideration by all sides. And the third step is agreeing to end the violence."
He refused to speculate on what might happen if either side refused to lay down its arms.
"That's foolishness," he said.
He said that the heart of the Irish problem "is the Unionist fear of being subsumed into the rest of Ireland. Until that relationship is sorted out to their satisfaction as well, nothing is going to work."
Both sides, he said, must bring to the bargaining table "their identity, their ethos, the heritage which they wish to protect. And then let's agree how we accommodate them both."