Cross-party consensus as Hague backs Mowlam

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A surprisingly strong endorsement of the Government's invitation to Sinn Fein to join all-party talks on Northern Ireland was delivered yesterday by the new Conservative leadership, write Anthony Bevins and Alan Murdoch.

William Hague said: "We welcome the news that, in the judgement of the Government, the behaviour of the IRA over the last six weeks enables Sinn Fein to participate in all-party talks."

Although the Conservative leader was cautious about making too much of such a short ceasefire, he said: "The people of Northern Ireland desperately want peace. Let us hope that, after all the bloodshed and disappointments of the past, Northern Ireland can at last look to a future of peace."

The Irish premier Bertie Ahern also welcomed the decision as "a historic development", while his foreign minister, Ray Burke, reassured Unionists that any agreement would have to be underpinned "by consent in all its aspects".