Hurd signals Ulster peace

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BRITAIN moved closer to accepting the IRA ceasefire yesterday with Douglas Hurd, the Foreign Secretary, declaring that even in the last few days there had been 'progress in the right direction'. Acceptance that the ceasefire is permanent could come this week.

In words that looked to be preparing Unionist opinion for Britain agreeing to open exploratory talks with Sinn Fein, Mr Hurd said 'words and deeds' were still needed from the IRA but that things were 'certainly moving in the right direction'. He stressed again that Britain had 'never insisted on the affirmation (by the IRA) of the word 'permanent' '.

The special Cabinet committee on Northern Ireland is expected to meet this week, opening up the possibility of exploratory talks within three months. However, British government sources have told the Independent that private estimates suggest that all-inclusive round-table negotiations involving London, Dublin and Northern Ireland may still be two years away - a timescale unlikely to find favour with the Irish government.

After meeting Dick Spring, the Irish Foreign Minister, in Germany, Mr Hurd said: 'What has been said - and more especially what has been done - reinforces the belief that this ceasefire is different to other ceasefires. But we have to be sure.'

He told BBC radio's The World This Weekend that 'there has been progress in the right direction, even in the last days', and he hoped that 'the great majority of Unionists now recognise that this is a straightforward decision by the IRA that the armed struggle is not working, it is not producing results and that they should abandon it as prescribed in the Downing Street Declaration'.

Mr Spring said his talks with the British Foreign Secretary on the fringes of the EU foreign ministers' meeting had been 'heartening' and 'very significant'.

The Government would have to reconsider the broadcasting ban, Mr Hurd said, once it moved, as 'I hope we can' from regarding Sinn Fein as the political wing of a terrorist organisation into seeing it as a political party involved in exploratory and then political talks. But no decision was imminent.

Senior ministers believe the ban has outlived its usefulness, according to British officials, and that it will be a source of embarrassment if Gerry Adams, the Sinn Fein president, goes to the US again. The Government will not oppose a US visa for Mr Adams, according to British sources. Instead it will try to influence the timing of the trip. It would prefer that Mr Adams was not in the US at the same time as Mr Hurd - the end of September, when the Foreign Secretary is to attend the UN General Assembly in New York.

The European Commission is to draw up a study on possible new financing for Northern Ireland, adding to the pounds 1bn that Brussels is to provide to the region over the next six years.

The study should be finished before Christmas. It is likely to include new projects for economic development and for improvements in cross-border infrastructure. EU cash could help to reduce the impact of a reduced British presence in Northern Ireland.

Two-year wait, page 2

Letters, page 13

Gag on freedom, page 15