Block lifted on Sinn Fein talks

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The Independent Online
The Government last night agreed to hold the first direct meetings between British government ministers and Sinn Fein leaders before any IRA guns or Semtex explosives are handed over to try to kick-start stalled talks about the decommissioning of weapons.

The Independent learnt last night that Irish and British ministers have received the first draft of detailed, step-by-step proposals by officials for such decommissioning.

The Queen is due to make a visit to Belfast today - her first since the ceasefire - to underline advances made by the peace process in Northern Ireland.

In a separate move to boost the peace process, Michael Howard, the Home Secretary, announced the lifting of 16 exclusion orders against suspected terrorists, preventing travel to Britain, but 40 other orders remained in force.

The bipartisan approach to the peace process was disrupted when Labour voted against the renewal for another 12 months of the Prevention of Terrorism Act after Mr Howard had refused to give a commitment to a fundamental review of the powers. It was passed by 314 to 212 votes, a majority of 102.

Rejecting demands by Jack Straw, the shadow Home Secretary, for a review, Mr Howard said if the moment came when some of the powers could be discontinued, the Government could do so. His refusal to follow Sir Patrick Mayhew, the Northern Ireland Secretary, in lifting all exclusion orders under his powers is likely to disappoint Irish ministers, who have been seeking more movement by London to maintain the momentum of the peace process.

Mr Howard said he had not lifted all the orders because "if the ceasefires were to break down, we might receive very little, if any, warning and, without doubt, many of the key targets would, as before, be on this side of the water". Those excluded were still a threat, he said.

However, the Government bowed to pressure from Dublin and Sinn Fein to move on its reluctance to let ministers take part in direct talks with Sinn Fein leaders, including Martin McGuinness. That reluctance to be seen engaging in talks while the IRA has stockpiles of weapons has led to recriminations by Sinn Fein leaders.

Irish ministers have warned the Government not to make the decommissioning of weapons a stumbling block to further talks.

British ministers have admitted privately that talks between officials and Sinn Fein have made little progress. The Northern Ireland Secretary denied there had been any shift in the government demand that "substantial progress" on weapon decommissioning should be made before Sinn Fein could enter all-party talks. The meetings between ministers and Sinn Fein will be bilateral talks which, Downing Street emphasised, could only lead to all-party talks if the IRA surrendered some weapons.

The possibility of face-to-face contact between ministers and Sinn Fein without a single weapon being surrendered caused anger and alarm within the Unionist community. John Taylor, Ulster Unionist MP for Strangford, said ministers appeared to be performing a complete U-turn.

IRA resists handover, page 2