Cautious welcome for peace plan

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The Independent Online
The British and Irish governments will today launch an initiative aimed at breaking the logjam on arms decommissioning in the hope of paving the way for both a new IRA ceasefire and political progress.

The initiative received a cautious welcome from the Sinn Fein vice-president Pat Docherty, who last night told BBC Radio 4's The World Tonight that while he had not seen the document drawn up by the two governments, "from the briefings we've received, it looks as if the British government have removed the decommissioning obstacle for our entry into all-party negotiations.

"It's an important step and I welcome that, but I remain cautious because I would like to see the detail. There is some concern that perhaps either the British government or the Unionists still have a power to re-erect the barrier somewhere before we reach a final peace settlement and we would like to see the detail of that before we make a final pronouncement."

Mr Docherty said Sinn Fein needed another face-to-face meeting with British officials finally to secure the clarity it sought. He added that if the clarification "happens in another way that is to our satisfaction we will obviously consider that".

But uncertainty still surrounded the position of the Ulster Unionist Party, which as the largest of the Northern Ireland parties is central to hopes of freeing the talks from an unproductive stasis which has lasted more than a year.

In the Commons today, Tony Blair, the Prime Minister, will unveil an approach based on the concept that arms decommissioning could take place in tandem with negotiations. Sinn Fein could be admitted to talks after a new IRA ceasefire.

Mr Blair yesterday met the UUP leader David Trimble in Downing Street, followed by a meeting with John Hume, the leader of the Social Democratic and Labour Party, to brief them on his proposed announcement. But the Blair-Dublin initiative drew an uncertain response from the UUP, raising doubts about its prospect of success.

Mr Trimble's initial remarks following his meeting were regarded as unexpectedly conciliatory, being welcomed by Downing Street sources as helpful. This led to some surmise that a breakthrough might be on the cards on an issue which has been possibly the largest obstacle to progress for a full two years.

By late afternoon, however, a harder line was evident, with Jeffrey Donaldson MP, one of Mr Trimble's closest confidants, indicating that his party had not ruled out a flat rejection of the proposals. Mr Trimble then appeared to harden the line further.

This insistence on decommissioning before negotiations is the stance which the British and Irish governments are intent on consigning to history. Mr Blair has apparently moved towards the Irish position that it is unrealistic to expect either republicans or loyalists to hand over weapons at an early stage of negotiations.

The Government will today publish a 12-page aide memoire which it secretly sent to Sinn Fein setting out the extent of the contacts which have gone on between Government officials and republicans. It will show that there were two key meetings and a third meeting was planned but was aborted after the killings by the IRA of two policemen in Lurgan.

Downing Street said the two documents would provide conclusive evidence so that the IRA could not claim they were being prevented from joining the peace talks by the intransigence of the British Government.