Hume kept lines open to Sinn Fein

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The Independent Online
A meeting at a secret location last Thursday between Gerry Adams, president of Sinn Fein, and John Hume, leader of the SDLP, paved the way for the new ceasefire. They emerged saying they were "optimistic"that obstacles in the way of Sinn Fein's involvement in the talks process had been removed. In fact, they both knew that the IRA decision had been taken.

Now the pressure is on David Trimble, leader of the Ulster Unionists. Tomorrow he meets Tony Blair and Mo Mowlam, Northern Ireland Secretary, who will try to help him sell a deal on decommissioning which his party may not want to stomach. If he backs the deal he may be accused of selling out the Union. If he doesn't he could be blamed for destroying the peace process.

Mr Blair has been determined to break the Ulster log-jam. Within two days of the election the Prime Minister told allies that his first big speech would be about Northern Ireland. Its contents were, however, a secret and Downing Street played down expectations ahead of the visit to Belfast to ensure the impact. The message was twofold: on the one hand Mr Blair described himself as an instinctive Unionist; on the other he announced official contact with Sinn Fein would resume.

The killing of two policemen in Lurgan by the IRA proved one of several setbacks, but the Government used the international outrage to its advantage.

Government resolve was tested again as the marching season began. At Drumcree, it bowed to Unionist pressure by allowing the controversial march to go ahead. That may have been a Pyrrhic victory. Behind the scenes, the nationalists were getting concessions - important ones. Sinn Fein demanded that the decommissioning issue should not hold up the talks, and that discussions should be time-limited. On both these grounds Mr Blair made it clear that he would move.

Mr Hume was meanwhile playing a crucial role. As one senior government source put it: "He argues it through with them." It was he who kept open the channels of communication with Sinn Fein in the months following the collapse of the 1994 ceasefire.

Mr Hume stressed to Mr Adams on Thursday how little time Sinn Fein had left if it was to secure an end to the violence in time to join all- party talks in September. The Government had said a restoration of the ceasefire must be in place for six weeks before Sinn Fein could come to the bargaining table.

Yesterday Mr Hume praised Mr Blair for "rationally and reasonably" setting out the terms for Sinn Fein's entry into talks, and rejected Unionist charges that the Government had made political concessions to Sinn Fein.

"The objective of the talks process is to reach an agreement that has the allegiance of both traditions. Agreement and reconciliation is our objective," he said.

There is alarm among Unionists at the suggestion that Mr Blair will go over the heads of elected politicians, putting a negotiated settlement to a referendum in March next year.

Under the earlier proposals a referendum would only take place after agreement from the party leaders as part of the "triple lock" of parties, Parliament and people.

Tomorrow Mr Blair is expected to offer some limited concessions, announcing the early establishment of the committee to examine decommissioning under the chairmanship of General John de Chastelain.

Politically Mr Trimble will hardly want to be the one to blame for scuppering talks. But he knows his party is anything but happy.