Michael Ancram, the Northern Ireland minister, flew to Washington yesterday on an emergency mission to maintain US support for Britain's stance on talks with Sinn Fein in the face of growing recriminations over the postponement of this week's planned Anglo-Irish summit.
Mr Ancram will meet senior administration and Congressional leaders on his two day visit, which is intended partly to counter the impact of visits to the United States by Sinn Fein's two leading figures in the wake of Dublin's abrupt cancellation of the summit last week.
Martin McGuinness, the republicans' leading negotiator, was in New York yesterday, and Gerry Adams, the Sinn Fein president, is to fly to America on Monday.
Mr Ancram's mission came as the Prime Minister, John Major, faced sharp criticism from John Bruton, the Taoiseach. In a letter to Mr Major, the Irish leader claimed to correct what he said were "fundamental misconceptions" in Downing Street about the status of the Anglo-Irish document that was drawn up by senior civil servants.
The paper originally proposed the commission on decommissioning IRA arms, which the two governments had hoped to agree on at the aborted summit on Wednesday.
The importance attached in London to maintaining support from the Clinton administration for Britain's stance was underlined last night by the disclosure that Mr Major had called in the US ambassador, William Crowe, on Wednesday, to brief him fully on the reasons for the summit's collapse.
The agreement that the two governments were to have announced on Wednesday would not have included a specific reference to the contentious third item of the so-called Washington Test, namely that Britain required the surrender of some weapons to signal the start of the decommissioning process before all party talks. According to Dublin sources, it was only at the weekend that the Irish government learned that the British would continue insisting publicly on that precondition, even though it would not be in the official joint communique.
That version of events was challenged in Whitehall last night. British sources said that London had always insisted that if asked, Mr Major and Sir Patrick Mayhew, Secretary of State of Northern Ireland, would continue to make clear that the Government was sticking to the Washington conditions in full.
It did not need to be included in the communique, as that would have triggered a preliminary stage in which the commission would consider means of decommissioning arms while separate trilateral talks between the two governments and each of the Northern Ireland parties would begin on the political future of Northern Ireland. All-party talks would come at a later stage, after the Washington Test had been met.
British officials said their clear understanding was that the summit had been aborted because when the Dublin government had put the outline of the proposed commission to Sinn Fein at the weekend, Sinn Fein had made clear it could not agree to a commission which it regarded as a mechanism for securing a republican surrender.
In remarks which London saw as confirming that interpretation last night, Proinsias de Rossa, the Democratic Left leader and Social Welfare Minister in the Dublin coalition, said the Irish government had been "surprised" to learn at the weekend that Sinn Fein would not participate in such a commission.
While the Sir Patrick and Mr Ancram have frequently insisted that that is not what they are seeking, there was consensus on both sides of the Irish Sea last night that Sinn Fein's trust of the British government is currently at a low level.
On a fund-raising and speaking tour of the US, Sinn Fein's chief negotiator, Martin McGuinness, yesterday squarely blamed the British government for the deadlock in the peace process, and called on President Bill Clinton to intervene to help break the deadlock.
"We hope that the American administration will use its good offices to have a discussion with the British government on how to move forward", Mr McGuinness remarked, during a visit to the United Nations headquarters in New York.
At the same time, however, he hinted that Sinn Fein may be ready to consider new proposals to resolve the crisis.
Mr De Rossa yesterday urged Sinn Fein and the IRA to work with the proposed international decommissioning body, in order "to allow all parties to work together at the table as equals."
He said there had been signs last week that Sinn Fein was prepared to work with such a body. This apparently referred to a comment by Sinn Fein's chairperson, Mitchel McLaughlin's, that the party would consider "very carefully and seriously" such a proposal if it were not simply a means to apply British pre-conditions.
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