'Historic' Irish talks enter crucial stage

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The Independent Online
A 'HISTORIC FIRST' was claimed by Sir Patrick Mayhew, Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, last night as Northern Ireland Protestant leaders and the Irish government met after a gap of 70 years.

Party leaders from both sides of the community in Northern Ireland meet again today at Stormont to continue their talks on an assembly with devolved powers for the province.

But Sir Patrick is hoping that after yesterday's discussion with Irish government ministers in London, the crucial next stage of the talks between the parties and the Irish government may begin as early as next week.

The prospect of a breakthrough was secured after the meeting agreed that the agenda for the final stage of the process would put on the table articles 2 and 3 of the Irish constitution, which lay claim to the six counties of Ulster. That appeared to be enough to satisfy the Ulster Unionists' demands.

Sir Patrick said after the two- and-a-half-hour meeting at the Queen Elizabeth Centre that the talks had been 'very calm and workmanlike'. He added: 'I can report we have had a useful discussion today. There has been a discussion in which Irish ministers have sat down with the party leaders. That is an historic first.'

David Andrews, the Irish Foreign Minister, said: 'We came here to honour our commitments. We are looking forward to an early meeting of strand two (the involvement of the Irish side in formal talks). Time is running out in terms of weeks. Therefore, the earlier the talks begin the better.'

He also acknowledged that the change of Irish leadership under Albert Reynolds had contributed to the hopes of a breakthrough. 'We are here because Mr Reynolds indicated we should come here. His judgement is 100 per cent correct,' Mr Andrews said.

Ian Paisley, the Democratic Unionist leader, was reported to have spoken at length at the closed meeting, attended by Mr Andrews and Padraig Flynn, the Minister of Justice.

The last time that Ulster Unionists met Irish ministers was in 1922 over the partition of Ireland, which led to the establishment of Ulster and to Ireland's constitutional claim.

All sides are under pressure to make progress before the 27 July deadline, but the annual Orange marching season begins in a fortnight, leaving next week as an opportunity for the talks.

Irish ministers also made it clear that if their constitutional claim is on the table for the third and final stage of the talks on a new relationship between the two governments, the British must also be prepared to discuss the possibility of pooling sovereignty on the province.

That may prove another stumbling block for the Ulster Unionists, who cleared a high hurdle

yesterday. None of the party leaders was prepared to speak publicly about the talks. Mr Paisley, asked whether he would say anything, replied: 'Have you no brains?'

The IRA has been relatively inactive in the province, awaiting the outcome, but British sources indicated yesterday that the extra troops sent to Northern Ireland to meet an upsurge in violence would be staying indefinitely.

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