Clinton tells IRA to give up arms

Adams says that talks with British ministers will start `sooner rather than later'
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The Independent Online
President Bill Clinton yesterday publicly urged the IRA to give up its arms as Gerry Adams claimed that talks with British ministers would begin "sooner rather than later".

On a St Patrick's Day that mixed corny, green-hued celebrations across America with high-wire diplomacy in Washington, Mr Clinton used a White House meeting with John Bruton, the Irish Prime Minister, to step up pressure on Mr Adams to respond to his warm welcome in the US with concrete moves towards surrendering weapons.

Mr Clinton declared that the prospects for peace were now the best in a generation. "To those who have laid down their arms, I ask you now to take the next step and begin to seriously discuss getting rid of these weapons so they can never be used again and violence will never again return to the land."

At a press conference shortly before, Mr Adams seemed to indicate that goal was drawing closer, claiming that Sinn Fein was now discussing an agenda for talks with Britain which would include the arms issues, and that these talks would take place soon.

But while Mr Clinton's remarks were welcomed in Whitehall as the response Mr Major had sought in his sharply worded letter to the President eight days ago, government spokesmen appeared much less impressed by Mr Adams' suggestion that ministerial talks with Sinn Fein were imminent.

While acknowledging that a putative agenda for a meeting had been discussed, the Northern Ireland Office was adamant that Sinn Fein had yet to produce the cast-iron assurance the Government is seeking before such talks take place: namely, that it is prepared to hold substantive discussions on the decommissioning of arms.

Mr Bruton also weighed in yesterday, calling on Mr Adams to assert himself and "get the IRA to get rid of their guns". Until that happened, those in Northern Ireland who wanted to keep ties with Britain would not feel secure.

Nor, said the Irish Prime Minister, should arms decommissioning be the sole focus of the peace effort. He called on Britain to release more prisoners and secure agreement on a new police force in Ulster, and urged the Clinton administration to move to reassure loyalists and convince them of its evenhandedness. Even so, Mr Bruton has said he expects "major steps" on arms decommissioning, perhaps as soon as next week.

Yesterday's comments by Mr Clinton should do something to warm the climate between Washington and London, reduced to an icy chill by the President's overtures to Mr Adams. The deep freeze had been threatening to wreck Mr Major's visit here in early April, but the new developments should help to warm the atmosphere before Mr Clinton and the Prime Minister hold their long-delayed phone call, probably today.

In an outspoken attack delivered before Mr Clinton's declaration in Washington, Michael Mates, the former Northern Ireland minister, accused the President of having played "naked politics" over the Irish question. Mr Mates said on BBC Radio: "John Bruton has behaved like a statesman. John Major has acted like a statesman. Clinton, I'm sorry to say, has behaved like a third-rate party politician."

But although Mr Mates has been used as an unofficial government spokesman on several occasions in the past few months, Whitehall sources were quick to imply last night that he been acting without such authority yesterday.

Asked for his reaction to the British government's "implied" criticism of his decision to allow Mr Adams here this week, Mr Clinton told a reporter: "If you're President of the United States, there are days when you're grateful for implied criticism. Most of it's expressed."

Mr Adams, meanwhile - in a claim dismissed by the Northern Ireland Office - said the bomb discovered in Newry on Thursday evening was a British "dirty trick". Was it likely, he asked, "that the IRA would maintain for the last half year a cessation [of violence] with only one breach and then, on the day I meet President Clinton, see some political or military purpose in placing a dud bomb?"

The NIO yesterday stood by the statement of Sir Patrick Mayhew, the Northern Ireland Secretary, that while he did not know who was responsible, the Newry device "appears to be of a kind that in the past has been used by Republican groups". Semtex man `innocent', page 2

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