Adams says Major broke off talks: Prime Minister in row over Sinn Fein after Guildhall call to Ulster parties to accept its role in peace negotiations

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The Independent Online
GERRY ADAMS, the Sinn Fein president, last night claimed that his party had been in 'protracted' contact with the British government over the future of Northern Ireland. The claim - flatly denied by Downing Street - was made by Mr Adams last night as John Major went the farthest he has yet gone in holding out the prospect for Sinn Fein to join all-party talks if the IRA renounced violence.

In his first public allegation that such contact had taken place, Mr Adams claimed the Prime Minister had broken it off 'at the behest of his Unionist allies' and that Mr Major's speech last night was an attempt to deflect attention from that dialogue.

Mr Major, speaking at the Lord Mayor of London's banquet at Guildhall, had said all the parties in Northern Ireland would have to accept Sinn Fein's participation in talks on the province's future if the IRA permanently ended violence.

The Prime Minister underlined the priority he now attaches to a settlement by devoting much of his wide-ranging speech to an outline of what he said was 'a better opportunity for peace in Northern Ireland than for many years'.

As he declared his determination to build on a 'burning desire on each side of the community' for peace, Downing Street stuck firmly to its earlier insistence that there had been no negotiation with Sinn Fein, or any other terrorist-linked organisation. Apart from the routine, low-level government traffic between all elected representatives - including those from Sinn Fein on 'local and constituency issues' - there had been 'no contacts'. A Northern Ireland official was even terser, saying angrily that Mr Adams should 'put up or shut up'.

In what will be seen as a signal to Dublin that he will not be deflected by hard-line Unionist opposition from seeking an outright settlement, Mr Major said that after a 'sufficient interval' to guarantee the permanence of an end to IRA violence, 'Sinn Fein can enter the political arena as a democratic party and join the dialogue on the way ahead'.

Speaking after his talks last week with the leaders of all the constitutional parties, and in advance of his planned summit with Albert Reynolds, the Irish Prime Minister, early next month, Mr Major said he accepted that 'against the sombre history of Ireland many will say that the odds are against us'.

Downing Street officials, while emphasising that the Northern Ireland issue was on the 'front burner', declined to say how long would be needed to establish the permanence of any IRA renunciation of violence. And Mr Major said he did not want to 'raise false hopes or set deadlines' for the completion of the peace process.

Implying that the Government is ready to press on without Democratic Unionist Party support if necessary, Mr Major went out of his way to emphasise that Dublin had shown a 'new understanding of the rights and concerns of Unionists'.

David Trimble, Ulster Unionist MP for Upper Bann, acknowledged that there had been suspicions of contacts between Sinn Fein and the Government 'from time to time'. But he said that what Mr Adams was claiming 'to my knowledge isn't true'. The claim was given more credence by Ian Paisley, the DUP leader, however, who said he had 'some evidence' that there had been secret contacts between No 10 and Sinn Fein.

Despite several official denials, republican sources in Belfast last night insisted that Sinn Fein representatives had held several secret meetings with representatives of the British government earlier this year.

According to reports circulating in Belfast, the talks were in strict secrecy and ended in June. The contacts were said to have been cleared at the highest levels of both the Government and the republican movement. One republican is quoted as saying: 'The conlict, its cause and resolution, were discussed.'

In his Guildhall speech, the Prime Minister coupled his commitment to raising educational standards to make Britain's workforce more competitive with a declaration that schooling was 'not just a preparation for work'. He added: 'It is a wider preparation for life, and it involves parents as well as teachers. It means learning the values of our society as well as the rules.'

Guildhall speech, page 6

(Photograph omitted)