Compromise bid over IRA arms

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The Independent Online
A last-ditch attempt to persuade the IRA to resume its ceasefire was made yesterday when the Cabinet committee on Northern Ireland agreed a compromise formula over decommiss- ioning of IRA weapons.

But the early indications from Sinn Fein last night were that the move did not go far enough. The Government is planning to allow decommissioning to be dealt with in one of four committees to be set up by on 10 June. It is intended to signal that Britain will not allow the Unionists to use the issue to stall the political talks.

A Dublin source said: "It is the last piece in the jigsaw, there can be no excuses now." The change came after the Prime Minister reassured Sinn Fein yesterday that decommissioning would not be addressed "without blocking the negotiations". His remarks were the culmination of a round of intensive talks to persuade the IRA to abandon its return to violence.

The moves - including a telephone call by John Major to John Bruton, the Irish Prime Minister, on Monday - underlined the growing anxiety of Dublin and London at the rejection by Sinn Fein and the IRA of their efforts to restore the ceasefire. Pressure also was being exerted by Washington on Sinn Fein to accept the move.

The Sinn Fein President, Gerry Adams welcomed, the Prime Minister's "aspirational and positive tone" but said he had still not gone far enough in explaining how progress can be achieved. The concern remains among Republicans that if there is a new ceasefire, the Unionists will effectively bring the talks to a halt on day one by refusing to go on unless the IRA starts handing over its weapons.

Ulster Unionist leader David Trimble said he also found Mr Major's key sentence "somewhat ambiguous". It used the phrase "without blocking the negotiations", which was one of Sinn Fein's key demands before it would contemplate a ceasefire, Mr Trimble said.

Mr Major was is also facing a backlash from some senior Tory backbenchers. Andrew Hunter, chairman of the Tory backbench Northern Ireland Committee, wrote to Mr Major on Wednesday warning that putting the decommissioning to one side would be "shameful appeasement" and would be seen as a surrender to the IRA.

Within minutes of his letter being delivered at Downing Street, he received a telephone call from Sir Patrick Mayhew, the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, assuring him there would be no sell out.

However, the move is certain to fuel growing fears by Ulster Unionists that the Government is preparing to concede the demands by Dick Spring, the Irish Foreign Minister, for a separate strand of the talks to deal with decommissioning.

Mr Hunter remained sceptical and told BBC radio that Mr Major's remarks were "confusing and ambiguous".