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Barry Hillenbrand/London

IN LONDON, THE HOUSE OF COMMONS was hushed as Seamus Mallon rose to speak. “This,” he proclaimed, “is the moment of truth for all paramilitary groupings. They have to make a choice: Will they join together in making peace, or will they isolate themselves?” Coming from Mallon, deputy leader of the Social Democratic and Labor Party, which speaks for the majority of Catholics in Northern Ireland, it was a challenge the Irish Republican Army could ill afford to ignore.

A new spirit of compromise and hope was abroad in Britain and Ireland last week, and that contrasted sharply with the air of despondency following the I.R.A.’s Feb. 9 bomb blast in London’s Docklands, which ended its 17-month cease-fire and appeared to shatter the peace process for Northern Ireland. British Prime Minister John Major and his Irish counterpart, John Bruton, emerged from a Downing Street summit to present a joint plan for all-party talks on Ulster’s future that could pave the way for peace. What was needed was a clear signal that the I.R.A. would call off the violence, thus allowing its political wing, Sinn Fein, to join the negotiations.

Other protagonists in the Northern Ireland conflict cautiously came on board and will participate this week in proximity talks styled on the Bosnian discussions in Dayton, Ohio. They intend to work out the details of elections to choose delegates for the all-party negotiations. But even though Major and Bruton set a firm date, June 10, for the full-scale talks, thus fulfilling a key Sinn Fein demand, the I.R.A. seemed determined to stick to its guns–and its bombs. At precisely the same time that Major and Bruton were meeting in London, Sinn Fein president Gerry Adams was closeted with I.R.A. commanders in an effort to persuade them to declare a new cease-fire. He failed. The I.R.A. leadership, Adams told TIME, “reiterated, very emotionally, their commitment to continue their armed campaign as long as it was necessary. As they see it, the British had sought to inflict a defeat upon them in peace that they were unable to achieve in war.”

The I.R.A. may yet change its mind and declare a cease-fire. The militants are clearly under pressure. The London bombings have dismayed and disgusted the people of Ireland, undermined support for Sinn Fein in America and damaged the credibility of Adams, who had promised that the I.R.A. had renounced violence. Although it is difficult to see how a permanent solution to the Ulster problem can be achieved without Sinn Fein’s involvement, Dublin and London have declared that they will hold all-party talks with or without Adams & Co.

Next week Adams travels to the U.S. for St. Patrick’s Day celebrations. Last year he was invited to the White House, but this year his reception in Washington will be low-key. The Clinton Administration has forbidden him to raise funds. Until he has succeeded in leading his friends in the I.R.A. down the road to peace, Adams will remain–as Seamus Mallon suggests–quite isolated.

–By Barry Hillenbrand/London. Reported by Paul Connolly/Belfast

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