Gulf remains on the weapons issue

Ulster peace crisis: Irish leader delays trip abroad for emergency meeting with British over decommissioning
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Chief Political Correspondent

John Bruton, the Irish Prime Minister, last night delayed by four days the start of a planned visit to Canada to resolve the crisis over the Northern Ireland peace process, but a gulf remained over the decommissioning of IRA weapons.

The British Ambassador to Dublin, Veronica Sutherland, held talks lasting two hours with the Irish Prime Minister, over a letter from John Major asking Mr Bruton for his reasons for cancelling their planned summit yesterday.

Mr Major meanwhile reviewed the crisis at Downing Street with Sir Patrick Mayhew, Secretary of State for Northern Ireland. British ministers were still bristling with irritation at the Irish for backing out of an agreement reached last week to establish an international commission to oversee the decommissioning of IRA weapons.

The Irish Prime Minister, who will delay his Canadian trip until next Monday, also met Gerry Adams, the Sinn Fein president, for 90 minutes.

British ministers fear that Mr Adams will go to Washington to enlist the support of the US President, Bill Clinton, to force Britain to back down over its demands for progress on disarming the IRA before Sinn Fein can be admitted to full round-table talks with the other parties.

In spite of a united front by nationalist leaders, including the SDLP leader John Hume, and the Irish government, Mr Major and Sir Patrick remained determined last night not to drop their requirement that some progress on decommissioning should be reached. They remain optimistic that the idea of the international commission will be revived.

Dick Spring, the Irish foreign minister, told journalists it was "time for reflection" and not a moment for "apportioning blame". He added: "We have to resolve the continuing differences of view."

Mr Major sent Mr Bruton a letter late on Tuesday night to clarify the difficulties. Downing Street sources said it was not asking him to "think again" about the commission, but asking Mr Bruton to explain the problems in their agreement which caused him to call off the summit.

The sticking point was the demand that the IRA give up weapons before entering all-party talks. However, it emerged that was not a pre-condition of the agreed summit accord. A British ministerial source said: "The general principle was that the commission would examine the commitment to decommissioning and ways in which it might take place. It was not going to be a commission to decommission [the weapons]."

Albert Reynolds, the former Irish Prime Minister, who signed the Downing Street Declaration paving the way for the ceasefire, said a verbal commitment to decommissioning weapons should be enough to put the peace process back on track.

"A precondition is seen in the nationalist community as a surrender. I think that the two governments should demand from everybody, including the IRA, a prior commitment to full decommissioning of arms," he said on Channel 4 News.