Clinton flies in to Ireland impasse

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Chief Political Correspondent

Bill Clinton will visit Northern Ireland without John Major, Downing Street announced yesterday as relations between the British and Irish Governments reached a new low over the impasse on the Ulster peace process.

The Prime Minister and the Taoiseach, John Bruton, had further talks on the telephone last night to try to resolve their differences, but Dublin and London appeared to be engaged in a private slanging match.

"They are dumping on us, to put the blame on Dublin," said one Irish source, as the tensions heightened over the impending arrival of the US president tomorrow.

The US President is expected to meet Gerry Adams, the Sinn Fein president, during his Ulster tour. But Mr Major will stay in London, avoiding the embarrassment of meeting the Sinn Fein leader.

British ministers fear Mr Clinton may call for all the parties to resolve their differences by getting around the negotiating table, putting pressure on Britain to drop its demand that the IRA should first make progress on decommissioning its weapons.

Downing Street carefully tried to play down the importance of Mr Clinton's visit for the Northern Ireland peace process, emphasising that the White House was giving priority in talks with Mr Major to the deployment of US and British forces in Bosnia.

The Prime Minister and the US President will have two hours of talks, before a press conference in Downing Street. Mr Clinton will lay a wreath on the tomb of the unknown warrior in Westminster Abbey before addressing the two houses of Parliament in the Royal Gallery in the House of Lords.

The US President will have tea with the Queen at Buckingham Palace and in the evening will have a dinner with Mr Major at Downing Street and senior ministers. On Thursday, the President will go to Belfast, where his visit will include switching on the Christmas lights with Van Morrison.

Mr Clinton will visit the Republic of Ireland on Friday, before going to Germany to review the US troops bound for Bosnia. His trip has come at the most delicate stage of the negotiations between London and Dublin. Irish sources were extremely annoyed by accusations in London - publicly supported by David Trimble, the Ulster Unionist leader - that the Irish had backtracked over the issue of IRA weapons.

The Irish sources firmly denied that it had bowed to IRA-Sinn Fein pressure to treat the IRA weapons on an equal footing with those held by the security forces.

The stumbling block is the insistence by London that a proposed international commission to deal with the IRA weapons should make no recommendations about the British condition that decommissioning should begin before Sinn Fein can be admitted to all-party talks. Dublin is arguing that it is unrealistic to expect the commission to hear evidence from Sinn Fein while being prohibited from making any recommendations about it.

Britain rejected an Irish proposal to reach agreement without a summit between the two Prime Ministers. Last night's talks appeared mainly designed to settle the dust between the two sides before the President's arrival, and to prepare for a summit after he has left Ireland.