Blair backs Major's stand on IRA arms

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The Independent Online

Tony Blair last night backed John Major's insistence that the IRA must start decommissioning of arms, in spite of growing criticism that it is putting the peace process at risk.

Promising to work with the Government on Northern Ireland, the Labour leader distanced himself from sharp criticism of Mr Major's demands by Bertie Aherne after meeting the Fianna Fail leader at the Commons. Clearly concerned by the growing anxiety over the stalled IRA talks, the Prime Minister and John Bruton, the Taoiseach, have called for a report on detailed proposals for decommissioning IRA weapons for a possible meeting in the margins of the Cannes EU summit next Monday or Tuesday.

Mr Blair said: "Labour entirely supports the Government's emphasis on the importance of exploratory dialogue to avoid deadlock in the peace process and their insistence that, before substantive talks can take place, both republican and loyalist representatives must accept the principle of decommissioning of arms, agree on the means and singal the start of the process as a sign of good faith."

Decommissioning of weapons was, he said, a crucial step in ensuring the commitment of all parties to the use of only peaceful and democratic means to establish an agreed and balanced constitutional settlement in Northern Ireland. Mo Mowlam, Labour's shadow Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, has been at pains to explain that a Labour government would not change the peace process. After the meeting with Mr Aherne, she said: "What is important now is that parties intersted in the peace process do not adopt positions that put that process in jeopardy."

Mr Blair's decision to maintain the bipartisan approach to the Government's negotiating position with Sinn Fein will be reinforced today when Robert McCartney, the independent Unionist victor of the North Down by-election, is introduced in the Commons.

Senior Labour sources made it clear that Mr McCartney would not be given the Labour whip, although he has indicated he intends to vote with Labour on most issues, because of Mr McCartney's opposition to the Government's policy on Northern Ireland.