The British cabinet minister responsible for Northern Ireland declared today that the Irish Republican Army has adhered sufficiently to its 1997 cease-fire pledge, despite apparent IRA involvement in recent incidents of violence and gun-running.

The declaration by Northern Ireland Secretary Marjorie Mowlam means that Sinn Fein, the political party affiliated with the IRA, can participate in the upcoming review of the stalemated peace process in Northern Ireland. It also means that Mowlam will continue to grant early release from prison to IRA members convicted of bombings and other acts of violence.

Citing the killing last month of a cab driver in Belfast and an IRA attempt this summer to smuggle in weapons from Florida, Mowlam said: "I have come very close to judging that the IRA's cease-fire is no longer for real." But as an "overall judgment," she said, she could not conclude that "these recent events represent a decision by the organization to return to violence."

If the factual question was a close call, Mowlam had almost no choice as a political matter. If she had concluded that the IRA was back on a war footing, Sinn Fein would not have a role in next month's discussions to revive the peace process initiated by last year's Good Friday agreement, which is aimed at balancing power between the province's majority Protestant and minority Catholic populations. Without Sinn Fein's presence, there probably can be no further progress toward peace.

That is because the key to the peace process in the British province has been the involvement of all sides in attempting to settle a bitter sectarian conflict that has left thousands dead. The peace talks are stalemated for the moment, and the effort to launch a multi-party provincial government is on hold.

In September, George Mitchell, the former U.S. Senate majority leader and the man who brokered the April 1998 peace accord, is scheduled to return to Belfast to head a review of the situation. If Mowlam had acted today to remove Sinn Fein from the bargaining table, Mitchell's effort would have been doomed before it started.

Another likely factor in today's declaration--although Mowlam did not mention it--is that a decision against the IRA and Sinn Fein would have been a political victory for the Ulster Unionist Party. Just a month ago, the Unionists brought the peace process to a halt by boycotting the first official session of the new provincial government, the Northern Ireland Assembly. Mowlam denounced the boycott and thus was in no position to give the same party a victory by banning its opposition.

Mowlam's declared rather bluntly today that the tense state of affairs in Northern Ireland--with sporadic killings, beatings and bombings--is better than the 30 years of sectarian conflict before the Good Friday plan. "The peace we have now is imperfect," she said, "but better than none."