AN Irish-American peace delegation is aiming to break the Northern Ireland stalemate by persuading the Irish Republican Army (IRA) and Sinn Fein, its political wing, to order a cease-fire in its 25-year campaign of violence.
Amid widespread rumors that Sinn Fein President Gerry Adams favors a cease-fire, Bruce Morrison, a former US congressman and friend of President Clinton, said Aug. 22 that he and the delegation wanted to talk to ``anybody in the [Ulster] province willing to listen.
``We advocate a cessation of violence in Northern Ireland, and we want to discuss ways of achieving a breakthrough,'' Mr. Morrison said in a TV interview.
He added that for the past year he had been in contact with Mr. Clinton, who ``wants to be helpful in providing whatever assistance he can in furthering the peace process.''
Contacts with the White House are continuing, Morrison says.
Morrison left for Belfast on Aug. 23, heading a group including Niall O'Dowd, publisher of the New York-based Irish Voice; and Charles Feeney and William Flynn, both prominent Irish-American businessmen.
The president's friend played a key role in obtaining a United States visa for Mr. Adams earlier this year.
The visit gave the Sinn Fein leader an opportunity to acquire an international profile and address audiences without the legal constraints which, in Britain, prevent his voice being broadcast on TV or radio.
Morrison and members of his delegation have visited Northern Ireland before, but never amid such publicity. Nor have signs that some kind of cease-fire may be in the offing been so promising.
A recent series of political maneuverings has made a cease-fire seem a more likely possibility.
In late July, the government ordered that IRA members found guilty of terrorist crimes be moved from jails on the British mainland to prisons near Belfast. This answered a long-standing IRA demand.
British troops patrolling the streets of the Northern Ireland capital have been ordered to replace their army helmets with soft berets - apparently in an attempt to indicate that they are not a hostile presence.
And two weeks ago, Sir Hugh Annesley, Northern Ireland's chief constable, said that even if the IRA limited itself to ordering a temporary cease-fire instead of the permanent cessation of violence Britain is demanding, the number of troops in Northern Ireland could be reduced.
Unionist (Protestant) leaders - the Rev. Ian Paisley most prominent among them - denounced Sir Hugh for making the comment, but Peter Brooke, a former Northern Ireland secretary in Prime Minister John Major's government, says that if the IRA does offer a cease-fire, the authorities in London ``should respond imaginatively.''
This is also the view of John Hume, the moderate nationalist leader whose dialogue with Adams last year led to suggestions that an end to Northern Ireland's conflict could be in sight.
The formal position of the London and Dublin governments is based on last December's Downing Street Declaration, which said that if the IRA declared a permanent cease-fire, Sinn Fein could play a legitimate part with other Northern Ireland parties in talks aimed at a long-term political settlement.
Since then Sinn Fein has held its annual conference where delegates rejected a permanent cease-fire, but Adams argued for at least a temporary halt to the violence.
Sinn Fein sources have since suggested that if the British government responded to a temporary cease-fire by thinning out troops in Northern Ireland and made other constructive political gestures, Adams might be able to persuade his followers to call a permanent halt to terrorism.
It is this possibility that Morrison traveled to Belfast to explore.
He could count on a ready welcome from Adams and other Sinn Fein and IRA figures, but Reverend Paisley said Morrison and Clinton should ``keep out'' of the Northern Ireland problem. He said he was not in favor of a meeting with the Morrison group.
Other Protestant politicians are taking a more conciliatory line.
Rev. Martyn Smith, a leading figure in the Ulster Unionist Party, said if Sinn Fein members were ``properly elected'' and ``prepared to behave in a democratic way,'' he could ``work with them.''
Morrison's visit to Belfast was scheduled ahead of a meeting of British ministers, Northern Ireland Protestant leaders, and moderate Roman Catholic politicians intended to examine ways of devolving political power to Northern Ireland.
That meeting was first set for September, but government sources say it is more likely to happen in October.
Adams has continued to be cagey when asked about reports that a cease-fire was imminent. He said such reports were ``news to me'' and ``not helpful.''
And on Aug. 22, a bomb police said had been planted by the IRA was defused in the center of London.
But British government sources believe the planting of the bomb was part of the IRA's strategy of keeping up pressure on the British government rather than a signal that Morrison's mission would end in failure.