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Fears for Ulster peace grow as talks fail

The Ulster peace process was facing a fresh crisis last night after secret talks between Sir Patrick Mayhew, the Northern Ireland Secretary, and Gerry Adams, the Sinn Fein president, failed to break the deadlock.

Sir Patrick and Dick Spring, the Irish foreign minister, will meet in Belfast today to review progress. But the two sides appeared as far apart as ever.

The deadlock is over Sinn Fein demands for the release of IRA prisoners and the British government's insistence that the IRA should make substantial progress on the decommissioning of weapons before Sinn Fein can join all-party talks.

"What the meeting showed is the British government recognise we are at an impasse and that there is a potential crisis. I welcome the meeting, but it did not succeed in breaking the impasse," Mr Adams said.

The disclosure that the talks took place last Tuesday angered Ulster Unionist MPs, who suspected a sell-out to Sinn Fein's demands. Mr Adams' remarks, however, suggest that no compromise had been reached. Sir Patrick is believed to have told Mr Adams that the Government is seeking to meet calls for the release of prisoners through transfers of prisoners from the mainland to Ulster and the Republic later this year, and the prospect of 50 per cent remission on licence for some prisoners serving life.

Ministers are seeking action on neutralising the IRA's arms by appointing an international commission, possibly including Canadians, to oversee the operation. An Anglo-Irish conference has been planned in the hope of announcing progress before the end of August, the ceasefire's first anniversary.

Michael Ancram, the Northern Ireland minister, said the meeting between the Sinn Fein president and the Northern Ireland Secretary followed Sir Patrick's brief meeting with Mr Adams in Washington earlier this year, and a number of contacts between himself and Martin McGuinness, a leading member of Sinn Fein.

"These meetings were requested by Sinn Fein. In the light of the hiatus that existed in terms of dialogue ... since the end of May, we felt it was right these meetings should take place, and it would have been irresponsible had we not gone to them."

Both the Government and Sinn Fein have become increasingly anxious about the lack of progress towards all-party talks. Sinn Fein has refused to call off a campaign of street protests, in spite of fears by the Dublin government that it could lead to violence.

Fears renewed, page 2