Hopes rise for weapons deal before summit

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The long-discussed summit meeting between John Major and John Bruton, the Irish prime minister, is expected to go ahead in London next Wednesday amid hopes of narrowing differences between the two governments on the future of the Northern Ireland peace process.

The two governments appeared somewhat closer to overcoming the critical stumbling block of arms decommissioning yesterday as the Irish foreign minister, Dick Spring, indicated a deal could be struck in time to proceed with next week's planned Anglo-Irish summit between the Prime Minister and the Taoiseach.

The new political momentum comes on the eve of tomorrow's anniversary of the IRA ceasefire. Mr Spring said arrangements were being made for the summit to go ahead next Wednesday and suggested agreement was in sight on creating an international commission to tackle the arms issue.

The optimism about a summit came after a fresh telephone conversation - the second of the week - yesterday morning between Mr Bruton and Mr Major, amid strong expectations of a direct meeting between Sir Patrick Mayhew, Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, and Gerry Adams, president of Sinn Fein, next Monday.

Dublin has also been pressing for all-party talks to restore stability to the Northern Ireland peace process. The British have continued to insist - most recently in Sir Patrick's speech in Belfast last Friday - that it cannot enter full round-table political talks until good faith has been demonstrated by Sinn Fein on decommissioning.

Mr Spring said: "We have a lot of work done [on decommissioning structures] and could in a very short time conclude our discussions. We are very close to arriving at conclusions," he said, confirming that the international commission plan was "one of the options" still in play.

He said it was "still our intention" to hold the summit next week, in sharp contrast to weekend suggestions that it might have to be postponed if discussions between British and Irish civil servants failed to reach an accord.

Some Dublin sources were then doubting the wisdom of the summit going ahead if it only highlighted disagreements. Mr Spring had signalled the meeting might have to be delayed until after the Taoiseach's visit to Canada from September 8 to 16.

The gap narrowed after further discussions earlier this week. The idea of an international commission overseeing removal of republican and loyalist weapons from circulation has been widely seen in Dublin as one of the few realistic ways to tackling the issue.

Speculation in Dublin on who would supervise an arms commission has centred on senior US figures, including President Clinton's economic adviser on Northern Ireland, former Senator George Mitchell, who would carry strong support from Dublin

The former speaker of the House of Representatives, Tom Foley, who took the British side in opposing a US visa for MrAdams, is believed in Dublin to have a greater measure of support in Whitehall, though British ministers have hitherto thought to have looked more favourably on a figure or figures from a more disinterested country, for example a Scandinavian one.

t A second INLA hunger-striker at Portlaise jail in the Irish Republic has been moved to hospital. Paddy Walls, from South Armagh, was taken to Portlaise hospital, where his condition was reported stable. He has been refusing food for 18 days.