The two governments late last night resolved a dispute that had intensified during the day over the appointment of George Mitchell, a former United States senator, to head the cross-party talks on the future of Northern Ireland.
In a compromise expected to be announced today, John Major and and his Irish counterpart, John Bruton, agreed in a telephone call late last night that Senator Mitchell would chair the talks' plenary session, and a sub- committee on the crucial issue on decommissioning.
But Britain appeared to have secure agreement that the highly sensitive "strand two" talks on cross-border issues would be chaired by John de Chastelain, the Canadian member of the Mitchell commission.
IRA sources, who have already cast severe doubt on the republicans' involvement in the talks by indicating there is little prospect of a ceasefire before their planned starting date, warned that disarming the IRA would have to await a political settlement.
In briefing journalists, the IRA made it clear that any possibility of a ceasefire should be discounted, principally because of the British Government's attitude on decommissioning. The likelihood of a ceasefire was described as "remote in the extreme".
One source said: "Let us nail completely the position on decommissioning. The IRA will not be decommissioning its weapons, through either the front or the back doors. We will never leave nationalist areas defenceless this side of a final settlement."
The senior IRA source described the idea - canvassed among key negotiators - of reviewing de-commissioning after three months as a fudge, after which Britain would re-erect the issue as an absolute barrier to progress. He accused the Government of having hardened its position.
The comments all but remove hope that a last-minute compromise could be found to enable an IRA ceasefire in time for the talks.
Nevertheless the successful efforts last night - acknowledged by Dublin to have been "intensive and difficult" - testify to both governments' determination to press ahead with or without Sinn Fein. Dublin is known to be satisfied that Senator Mitchell will be in overall charge of the talks process.
John Major had earlier held up a deal, expected to have been signed two days ago, after the Ulster Unionist leader, David Trimble, refused to allow Mr Mitchell to chair the "strand two" talks on future relations between Northern Ireland and the Irish Republic.
Ulster Unionists and some British ministers were not prepared to trust Mr Mitchell with one of the most delicate areas of the talks. They had argued that Mr Mitchell should be limited to chairing the opening session, and a subcommittee on disarming the IRA.
As part of his efforts to break the impasse, John Bruton, the Irish Prime Minister, paid a surprise visit to London to hold brief talks with the leader of the Ulster Unionists.
Mr Trimble had taken a hard line when he met Mr Major on Monday.Reuse content