Cabinet weighs Mitchell report on Irish peace

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The Independent Online

Chief Political Correspondent

A Cabinet committee will today decide Britain's response to the Mitchell Commission report on the decommissioning of paramilitary weapons to put the Northern Ireland peace process back on track.

The report could herald a move in the Province to elect negotiating teams for the all-party talks on the long-term government of Northern Ireland.

The outcome could have a bearing on John Major's hopes of holding on to power for another year. He cannot afford to upset the Ulster Unionists, on whose votes he may have to depend.

Ministers received the report last night from the commission under United States Senator George Mitchell and it will be made public tomorrow. Mr Major is expected to speak to John Bruton, the Irish Prime Minister, today to agree a joint response to the report.

The report is expected to endorse the idea of an elected body in Northern Ireland, but not a full power-sharing assembly as proposed by the Ulster Unionists. That option was firmly rejected by Dublin and the Social and Democratic Labour Party leader, John Hume.

British ministers are keen on the idea of holding early elections to the body, which could appoint negotiating teams, to put Sinn Fein's public support to the test. They believe it would intensify the pressure on the IRA to begin decommissioning of weapons.

The Mitchell Commission is expected to conclude that the IRA could be encouraged to begin decommissioning its arms, possibly through a third party, acting as an independent monitor.

The timing of the decommissioning remains the most difficult issue facing the two governments. Dublin has been trying to persuade London to drop its precondition that the IRA begin decommissioning before Sinn Fein can be admitted to all party talks, but Mr Major has said the Ulster Unionists will not sit down at the negotiating table if the arms question has not been dealt with.

The Ulster Unionists are holding to the "arms before talks" formula, while Sinn Fein and the Dublin government are pressing for "talks before arms". It is unlikely the Mitchell Commission will have found a way round that impasse, but the elections could offer a way through.

The talks could go ahead in April, if the two governments agree. They would then challenge Sinn Fein to seek support for their views. The elected body would not run services, but would appoint teams to negotiate in private the future framework for Ulster.