A team of four officials from each government began detailed talks that will continue until John Major and Albert Reynolds, the Irish prime minister, meet in Brussels during the European Council meeting at the end of the week.
Mr Reynolds said the two governments were halfway towards drafting a statement on peace in Northern Ireland, but it was now a matter of whether agreement could be reached before the mood for peace waned. 'We do not have time on our side. The mood for peace will not carry on indefinitely,' he said yesterday. 'What is needed is that the two governments signal quite clearly that they are looking for a new beginning and they want everyone to join in that. And hopefully the men of violence will see that the futility of 25 years has got them nowhere and they will consequently join the talks process.'
In a fresh message to Unionists, Dick Spring, the Irish foreign minister, said: 'We in the Republic of Ireland must be prepared to recognise and to preserve and protect the rights of Unionists as British subjects and citizens.'
Downing Street - and, in a television interview, Douglas Hurd, the Foreign Secretary - dismissed reports that Mr Major was ready to compromise on the issue of Dublin's constitutional claim to Northern Ireland.
Mr Reynolds admitted in an Irish radio interview that several differences over serious issues remained between the two governments, and repeated the republic's assertion that there could be no moves towards the repeal of articles 2 and 3 of the constitution before the emergence of 'a balanced settlement emanating from the talks process'. But he said he would put in writing, if necessary, a commitment to a referendum on the change.
He said: 'The present position of the Irish government is that, in the event of an overall settlement, they would put a referendum to the Irish people to bring about whatever changes are required in that situation. I will write it if somebody wants it.'
Mr Reynolds said the timing of Sinn Fein's entry into talks, following an end to the IRA violence campaign, would be for the two governments to decide. 'Hopefully we will get to that issue, if not at the next meeting, at the one after that.'
James Molyneaux, the Ulster Unionist leader, indicated some optimism over a possible cessation of violence - but he tempered that by saying that it would not be delivered by 'high-wire summitry' between the two governments.
Responding to reports of secret links with loyalist gunmen, the Northern Ireland Office said there was 'no established means of communication between government and loyalist paramilitaries of the kind which was revealed last week as existing between the Provisional movement and government'.
However, that wording suggests there has been some contact. David Trimble, Ulster Unionist MP for Upper Bann, said: 'It wouldn't surprise me. We always knew this sort of thing went on. Talking to terrorists is silly. Talking to terrorists gives status because of their terrorism, and consequently encourages terrorism. I only wish the Government had the strength of character to stick to their stated policy.'
A man and a 16-year-old boy were killed in a shotgun attack by loyalists in north Belfast. The Ulster Freedom Fighters said it carried out the murders.
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