Hopes for Ulster peace move before Christmas

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The Independent Online
JOHN MAJOR and Albert Reynolds, the Irish Taoiseach, were still making intense efforts to secure an end to violence in Northern Ireland by Christmas despite differences which emerged between the two governments last night.

Although the Prime Ministers were said officially to have made progress in a hour-long meeting, senior sources in both governments acknowledged that obstacles remained in the way of a joint declaration aimed at an IRA renunciation of violence.

Officials from both governments began further drafting work in Brussels last night and will continue today, in the hope of the prime ministers agreeing a final text which could be published at a summit in London as early Tuesday or Wednesday.

Last night's meeting on the fringes of the EU summit in Brussels did not make enough progress to fix a date for a further meeting, casting some doubt over earlier hopes that Mr Reynolds and Mr Major might be able to agree a declaration in time to report to the Commons and the Dail before they rise on Friday. A senior British government source refused to rule such a possibility 'in or out'.

The source made it clear that the differences went beyond mere drafting nuances and that 'there was still some way to go.' He added that while the Government very much hoped to secure a settlement before Christmas it could not be guaranteed. That was reinforced by Mr Reynolds, who told reporters: 'It is a bit more than the language. There are still a number of difficulties that have to be put to bed.'

There were signs last night of Irish frustration that concessions from Dublin had not been matched by Mr Major.

The Irish government is convinced that the British could agree to terms which would provide the basis for the IRA to abandon violence. But the British have been anxious throughout the talks to secure firm pledges aimed at reassuring the Unionists that no change would be made to Northern Ireland's status without agreement of the majority.

Neither side would be drawn on the detailed differences between them. But there has also been intense discussion between officials for a joint convention or forum of the political parties on both sides of the border, which would include Sinn Fein after a renunciation of violence.

Any communique would almost certainly repeat that Sinn Fein could take part in 'exploratory' talks after a period - probably as short as 12 weeks - after ending violence.

There has also been speculation that the British would reaffirm in any communique that they had no selfish, strategic or economic interest in remaining in Northern Ireland - a point made in a speech by Sir Patrick Mayhew, the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland last year.

That would be balanced by firm guarantees of the principle of consent by the Northern Ireland majority and the prospect of a changes to the articles of the Irish constitution that lay claim to sovereignty over Northern Ireland.