Clinton stands back from Dublin 'proximity talks' plan

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President Bill Clinton yesterday refused to commit himself to Dublin's proposal of "proximity talks" - akin to those which produced the Bosnia accords in Dayton, Ohio - to break the deadlock in the Northern Ireland peace process.

Speaking after a 30-minute Oval Office meeting with Mr Clinton and Vice- President Al Gore, the Irish Foreign Minister Dick Spring said merely that the US was ready to look at all proposals, including both "proximity talks" and Britain's formula of elections to clear the way for all-party talks, in theory due to start by the end of the month.

In fact that target date, agreed last year by Prime Ministers Major and Bruton, is virtually a dead letter. Mr Spring is but the latest in a string of British and Irish politicians to make the pilgrimage to Washington, seeking US blessing for their competing plans.

Within 48 hours of Mr Major's de facto rejection of the recommendations of the Mitchell report on decommissioning, two British delegations had met Mr Clinton's national security staff, followed by Gerry Adams, the Sinn Fein leader. Like Mr Spring, Mr Adams was accorded the honour of a meeting with Mr Clinton but, again like Mr Spring yesterday, failed to elicit a statement of US opposition to elections, in which Sinn Fein is refusing to take part. Completing the list of visitors are the Ulster Unionist leader, David Trimble, who will be here next week, and John Hume of the SDLP.

But the impasse apparently remains complete. Seeking to project itself as an "honest broker", the Clinton administration is effectively barred from publicly taking sides, confining itself to exhortations that all- party talks start as soon as possible. Indeed, neither proximity talks nor elections were mentioned as such in the statement issued by the White House after yesterday's talks.

Mr Spring said the proximity talks, involving the Unionists, Sinn Fein, the SDLP and other Northern Ireland parties should be convened and supervised by the British and Irish Governments, removing the need for a US mediator. He repeated his criticism of elections paving the way to all-party talks as "a diversion".

John Bruton, the Taoiseach, yesterday stepped up pressure on Britain to co-operate with Dublin's plan and stressed he intended holding Mr Major to the terms of last November's joint communique which aimed to start all-party talks by the end of this month.

Dublin sources have confirmed the proposal on Dayton-style talks was made to London during the two days between the delivery of the Mitchell decommissioning report and the Major speech in the Commons on 24 January. Dublin felt that speech effectively sidelined the Mitchell report by introducing a new precondition.

The revelation from informed sources puts the British position, enunciated by Northern Ireland political affairs minister Michael Ancram , that such talks would be "at best premature," in a new light.