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The Irish Republican Army declared a "complete cessation of military operations" beginning at midnight tonight -- an important step toward ending a quarter-century of bloody violence. "We believe that an opportunity to secure a just and lasting settlement has been created," read the I.R.A.'s statement. "We are therefore entering into a new situation in a spirit of determination and confidence." The forceful declaration belies the substantial difficulty the I.R.A. went through to decide to take this step, says TIME deputy managing editor John F. Stacks. He recently returned from Ireland, where he met with Gerry Adams, president of Sinn Fein, the political wing of the IRA. The overture "puts pressure on the British to respond," says Stacks. Some initial demands aimed at London: release political prisoners from British cells and withdraw English troops from Catholic areas of Northern Ireland. But before they react, Britain's Prime Minister, John Major, and some Protestant leaders have de