Clinton: 'Take risks for peace'

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President Bill Clinton began a historic visit to Britain and Ireland yesterday by praising John Major and John Bruton for being prepared to "take risks for peace".

Mr Clinton, who is expected to meet Gerry Adams, the Sinn Fein president, at a reception in Belfast today, gave a clear signal that he believed Sinn Fein and the other parties to the twin-track peace initiative should also take risks for peace.

On a day when he underlined the "extraordinary relationship" with Britain, the President carefully sidestepped the outstanding gap between Dublin and London over the British demand that the IRA should begin decommissioning its weapons before joining all party talks.

Standing alongside John Major outside 10 Downing Street, he said: "The message I will give in public is the same as the message I will give in private. The framework set out by Prime Minister Major and Prime Minister Bruton is the best opportunity I have seen to resolve all these issues and I think it should be embraced. I hope it will be."

Praising John Major in unusually warm terms for reaching the summit accord and for British action in Bosnia, Mr Clinton said: "I cannot say enough to the British people how much I appreciate and admire the Prime Minister for taking this kind of risk for peace. This was not an easy action for him to take ... Ireland is closer to true peace than at any time in a generation and risks taken by the Prime Minister and the Irish Prime Minister are the reason why."

The President - who as a student once complained about the class system in Britain - also addressed both Houses of Parliament, with Baroness Thatcher in the audience, and made it clear that the United States intended to remain a major power player in Europe. In the glittering Royal Gallery, Mr Clinton won warm applause when he said the US would never again "go down the road" of isolationism.

He later met Tony Blair, the Labour leader, for private talks at the US Embassy. "They had extremely friendly talks, and the President asked Tony to tell him about New Labour," said a Labour source. Mr Clinton made it clear he admired the support for Britain's foreign policy which Mr Major received from Mr Blair, something he wished he had in Washington.

Mr Clinton discussed with Mr Major US plans for more cooperation between the European Union and the US for tackling global terrorism, and drug trafficking; the case for Russia to be drawn more into European affairs; and for Nato to be expanded to take in some of the former Warsaw pact countries.

The President and Prime Minister dismissed their officials for a tete- a-tete at Downing Street lasting nearly an hour before a further hour of talks. Mr Major told colleagues they had devoted most of their time to discussing Ireland. Officials did not deny that Mr Major was keen to secure Mr Clinton's support to put pressure on Sinn Fein behind the scenes.

It was suggested that US pressure played a crucial role in bringing concessions from Ireland for the summit on Tuesday, although that was denied yesterday by sources in Dublin.

The initial response from the republicans was noticeably conciliatory. At a Sinn Fein press conference in Falls Road yesterday, Mr Adams said his party would not make a definitive response for some time, but he repeated several times that Sinn Fein would be approaching the communique with a positive attitude.

He said: "Clearly what we got last night was a fudge."

His comments are seen as confirming the calculation of the two governments that the republicans would not reject the document out of hand.

Both prime ministers yesterday acknowledged that they remained at odds over the disarmament issue. Mr Major reaffirmed his commitment that Sinn Fein cannot join the all-party talks until the IRA begin disarming. "It is not dogma. It is a matter of practicality," he told MPs. Mr Bruton said the issue should be part of the talks process.

The summit accord was seen as a carefully phrased compromise by both sides, which puts off that crucial issue until later. The aim of both sides is that the momentum will now force the parties to co-operate, and bring about IRA disarmament.

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