BRITAIN is taking no chances on the peace process in Northern Ireland.
While Belfast shoppers with piles of parcels at Christmas gave living proof that the province is already reaping a peace dividend, British officials are greasing political talks between the Irish Republican Army and Protestant guerrilla groups.
In a show of new flexibility, Northern Ireland Secretary Sir Patrick Mayhew signaled paramilitary groups that an immediate and complete surrender of weapons may no longer be a precondition for joining talks.
Using carefully chosen words, Sir Patrick said on Dec. 29 that representatives of Catholic and Protestant paramilitary groups could expect to be admitted to talks if ``substantial progress has been made toward the decommissioning of arms.''
British officials said the key words in that statement were ``substantial progress'' and ``decommissioning,'' which could mean stockpiling weapons under guard in secure areas while talks got under way.
Sticking point: arms surrender
In pre-Christmas talks with Irish government representatives, Gerry Adams, president of Sinn Fein, the IRA's political wing, continued to stress that demands that weapons be surrendered were unrealistic.
Security services in Northern Ireland and the Irish Republic were widely reported on Jan. 1 to be advising London that insisting on the surrender of arms before full peace talks would be counterproductive.
Mayhew's Dec. 29 statement, directed at both the IRA and Protestant paramilitary groups, appeared to be an attempt to persuade unionists, who want the region to stay British, that they could safely enter substantive peace talks with Sinn Fein.
``If any deal is to be achieved, Northern Ireland's Protestant community has to support it,'' one official said, ``and that is unlikely to happen while the IRA retains heavy weapons and several tons of explosives.''
Protestant confidence in the current cease-fire was not helped by the discovery on Dec. 18 of a bomb containing Semtex plastic explosive at a furniture store in Northern Ireland's County Fermanagh.
Martin McGuinness, Mr. Adams's deputy, denied ``absolutely'' that the bomb had been planted by the IRA. But the Rev. Ian Paisley, leader of the Democratic Unionist Party, said no other group in the province possessed Semtex and charged the IRA with ``its usual duplicity.''
But another unionist political party appeared to find encouragement in the cease-fires. The Ulster Democratic Party, a small hard-line group that represents the paramilitary Ulster Defense Association, has asked to meet the mainly Catholic Social and Democratic Labour Party (SDLP) for talks.
The Ulster Democratic Party said on Dec. 29 that it wanted to ``put our cards on the table'' and for ``others to do the same.''
Until now the UDP and SDLP have refused to talk officially to each other.
Economy paves road to peace
Ultimately, however, the economy may be just as important a factor in making the cease-fires permanent. The more citizens of Northern Ireland get used to the tangible benefits of peace, the more a return to war will seem inconceivable.
Frank Caddy, head of the city's Chamber of Commerce, notes that the IRA's Aug. 31 cease-fire made it possible for cars to drive and park in shopping areas without having to be searched. Relaxed shoppers spent 10 percent more than at Christmas 1993.
``Things are much steadier than they have been for years,'' Mr. Caddy says. ``We can begin to build an attractive economic image here that will be good for business.''
Meanwhile, British officials are trying to boost the economy as well as talks. As Christmas shoppers thronged Belfast stores, Baroness Denton, the Northern Ireland economy minister, launched a scheme to take up to 20,000 long-term unemployed off the dole in the next three years. ``Investment and jobs represent the mix that will cement and entrench the peace,'' she said.