Blair's promise of peace to Ulster's young

Unionists give lukewarm response to new timetable
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Tony Blair yesterday forced the pace of the stalled peace process in Northern Ireland by setting a fresh timetable for the all-party talks to start in September and end in May next year, raising the possibility of a referendum on the talks outcome.

The IRA will now face pressure from almost every point of the political compass to declare a new ceasefire which would give Sinn Fein entry into talks.

Mr Blair told MPs that politicians on all sides owed it to a 12-year- old Belfast schoolgirl to achieve lasting peace. Before his Commons statement, Mr Blair met Margaret Gibney, a schoolgirl who had written to him at Downing Street appealing for peace.

"I owe it to her, and this House owes it to her, and all those who have influence and authority owe it to her, to put a stop to the killing and put in place a lasting political statement," the Prime Minister said.

The choice for Ulster Unionist leader David Trimble is to go along with proposals which could allow Sinn Fein into talks with no guarantee that republicans arms would be decommissioned, or to consider walking away from the whole exercise.

Sinn Fein president Gerry Adams welcomed the Prime Minister's statement to the Commons. "We will give the proposals our fullest attention and consideration," he said.

But he warned: "I remain deeply concerned that the decommissioning issue will become a block to the negotiation of the substantive issues further down the road."

Although the technical points appear to have been dealt with, the political atmospherics are by no means conducive to an early ceasefire. For one thing the IRA murders of two policemen earlier this month have now been followed by further attempted attacks which show the terrorist organisation remains active and dangerous.

For another, the looming Drumcree parading controversy, which is due on 6 July, has cast a pall of foreboding over not just political negotiations but indeed the whole community. The convention wisdom is that no ceasefire is to be expected until that date has passed.

John Hume, leader of the Social Democratic and Labour Party, signalled that he would support the process without Gerry Adams if the IRA failed to restore the ceasefire. But Ulster Unionist MPs were quick to raise their objections.

Mr Trimble complained in the Commons that the Prime Minister's plans were "seriously deficient" because they failed to include a timetable for decommissioning the IRA weapons and he said the terrorists were being given "yet another last chance".

The Independent Ulster Unionist, Robert McCartney warned Mr Blair that if his initiative did not deliver peace, the IRA would be "back to square one" with more violence.

Ian Paisley, the leader of the Democratic Unionist Party, and the most hostile to the plans, protested that Sinn Fein were going to get into the talks without surrendering "one weapon or one ounce of Semtex".

The initiative was given the cross-party support of the Conservatives by William Hague, the Tory leader, and the Liberal Democrats, by party leader Paddy Ashdown.

Colin Duffy, 29, of Lurgan, Co Armagh, was yesterday charged with the murder of two RUC officers shot dead by the IRA in the town earlier this month. The officers died when a man approached them from behind and shot them in the head.

Hints of hope over talks

The Government yesterday published a secret aide-memoire to Sinn Fein hinting at concessions for terrorist prisoners from both loyalists and republican groups, if progress is made in the peace process, writes Colin Brown.

The document said that as a confidence-building gesture, the Government recognised "the particular sensitivities of prisoner issues on all sides" . One of the key demands from paramilitaries on both sides has been for early releases to take place, once the peace is secured.

The aide-memoire confirms that officials secretly told Sinn Fein that it could gain entry to the talks six weeks after the declaration of an IRA ceasefire.

The document was written after two meetings in May between officials and Sinn Fein, and is still in force. It shows that ministers were offering Sinn Fein the chance to take a seat at the peace talks by the end of July, providing the IRA announced the "unequivocal restoration" of the ceasefire.

"The British Government wants to see the talks proceed on an inclusive basis and move on to the substantive political issues as soon as possible, and in any case by September. It wants Sinn Fein participating in these talks," it says.

Some time would be needed to assess a ceasefire to see that the words of the IRA matched their deeds. "We understand that an open-ended time period gives rise to accusations of bad faith. We are prepared therefore to remove any misunderstanding by saying the period of time for such a judgement is some six weeks.

"If an unequivocal ceasefire is in place by mid-June, and is satisfactory in word and deed, Sinn Fein would be invited to a plenary session of the negotiations by the end of July. That would be the occasion for Sinn Fein to make clear its commitment to the Mitchell 6 principles."