BELFAST, Northern Ireland -- Hope for peace in Northern Ireland took a giant stride ahead yesterday as Protestant gunmen responded to the 6-week-old cease-fire of the Irish Republican Army by declaring their own cease-fire.
The Protestant paramilitary groups pledged to "universally cease all operational hostilities" as of midnight yesterday. The duration of the cease-fire, a communique said, "will be completely dependent" upon how long the IRA cease-fire lasted.
A statement was read by a well-known figure among Protestant paramilitaries, Augustus "Gusty" Spence, who was credited with founding the modern-day Ulster Volunteer Force in the 1960s. Now 61, with receding hair, glasses, and a necktie and pipe, he served 19 years of a life sentence for killing a young Catholic barman in 1966.
His voice barely quivered as he read out a line of communal regret. "We offer loved ones of innocent victims over the past 25 years abject and true remorse," he said. "No words of ours will compensate for the intolerable suffering they have undergone during the conflict."
The step was a further breakthrough in movement to end the sectarian warfare that has racked the province for 25 years.
It meant that for the first time the heavily armed paramilitaries on both sides of the religious divide have said that they are stopping fighting, not for short-term tactical reasons but to bring about negotiations and a democratic solution.
But it does not mean that peace is guaranteed. That would come only with a final settlement, and one has yet to be proposed that would square the desires of 950,000 Protestants, almost all of whom want to remain part of Britain, with those of 650,000 Catholics, many of whom want to unite with Ireland.
The announcement yesterday was greeted warmly by most politicians on both sides of the Irish Sea.
Prime Minister Albert Reynolds of Ireland saw it as "the dawn of a new era."
John Hume, a Northern Ireland Catholic politician who played an important role in getting the peace initiative off the ground, was equally enthusiastic about "a very good day for the people of Northern Ireland."
But Prime Minister John Major of Britain tinged his favorable comments with caution. He called the cease-fire "unalloyed good news."
"We must analyze it and consider it, and then carefully decide with realism what is the way forward."
Mr. Major's government has not yet fully accepted the cessation Sept. 1 by the IRA because it is not satisfied that the cease-fire is permanent. Until a proclamation is made, Mr. Major says, the clock will not start ticking to count off a good-faith period of up to three months before talks can begin.
"We still have to reach a situation where we are satisfied it is permanent," he said yesterday. "If we snatch at these things, it is going to slip away. We need to retain the confidence and trust of all the people of Northern Ireland."
That sort of caution to some degree ameliorated the fears of Protestant "loyalists," who want to remain a part of Britain.
They initially worried that the IRA must have laid down its arms because of a secret deal with London. But as time went on and London remained seemingly ambivalent, the anxiety lifted, and eventually this made it possible for the Protestant paramilitaries to match their Catholic antagonists in turning away from armed struggle.
Now, London's position is less persuasive since it is refusing to recognize a cease-fire whose legitimacy is granted even by the most militant Protestant fighters. Pressure is bound to mount upon the British government to get exploratory talks moving. London and Dublin are currently working on a "framework" document that would serve as a guide to the talks.
Both Washington and Dublin have made it clear that they would like to see a faster pace and that London should not squander the opportunity for peace.
Gerry Adams, leader of Sinn Fein, the IRA's political arm, hammered the same point Wednesday. Speaking in Canada at the end of his North American tour, he welcomed the loyalist cease-fire and called upon Mr. Major to "stop fumbling with this peace process."
Loyalist fears also were soothed by a trip Mr. Major made to Belfast on Sept. 16. He promised that a referendum would be held in Northern Ireland on whatever proposals on its future status might emerge from talks involving all sides.
Not everyone is satisfied. The Rev. Ian R. Paisley, head of the hard-line Protestant Democratic Unionist Party, remains suspicious of British motives and repeated yesterday that he saw "no benefit" in the IRA cease-fire.
In the 43 days of the cease-fire, the IRA has refrained from all acts of intercommunity violence, despite some provocations by the loyalist side. The Protestant paramilitaries killed a Catholic worker the night of the cease-fire, set off a bomb near a Sinn Fein office and planted a device, which only partly exploded, on the train to Dublin.
On Sept. 8, it became clear that the Protestant organizations were seriously debating their own cease-fire when they released a statement that laid out a series of demands and said they
wanted to make a "contribution" to peace.
The key day in reaching the decision was Monday, according to the Rev. Roy Magee, a Presbyterian minister who has extensive contacts with the paramilitaries. On that day, under an arrangement negotiated by Mr. Magee with top British officials, leaders from the illegal organizations were allowed into the Maze prison to hold strategy sessions with paramilitary leaders detained or serving sentences. The prisoners gave their approval to the cease-fire.
Yesterday's announcement was made at a crowded news conference by politicians from two fringe parties, the Ulster Democratic Party and the Progressive Unionist Party, which are closely associated with the paramilitaries. It was held in a community hall, draped with Orangebanners and bedecked with the Union Jack and the Ulster flag, in a Protestant neighborhood in Belfast.
The statement was made in the name of the Combined Loyalist Military Command, a titular organization that combines the two major Protestant paramilitary groups, the Ulster Freedom Fighters and the Ulster Volunteer Force. Between them they have killed more than 900 people of the 3,300 who have been slain since 1969.
The tone of the statement was conciliatory. It spoke of being "on the threshold of a new and exciting beginning, with our battles in the future being political battles."
At another point, it said, "Let us firmly resolve to respect our differing views of freedom, culture and aspiration and never again permit our political circumstances to degenerate into bloody warfare."
Over the past three years, the death toll racked up by Protestant paramilitaries has been higher than that of the IRA, and so far this year, they have killed 33 people compared to the IRA's 24.
To some degree, their terrorism campaign is even more indiscriminate. Though both sides have planted bombs that have wiped out innocent civilians, the Ulster Freedom Fighters and the Ulster Volunteer Force specialize in random shooting of Catholics as a means of sowing terror in Catholic neighborhoods.