Irish peace deal sealed by summit

New accord to greet Clinton
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John Bruton, the Irish Prime Minister, met John Major at Downing Street late last night in an emergency summit to end the deadlock in the Ulster peace process.

The two met after a desperate day of negotiations involving brinksmanship on both sides. Officials in Dublin and London were determined to reach a deal before President Bill Clinton's arrival in Britain today. As part of the frantic series of contacts between the governments, the two prime ministers spoke twice on the telephone, the second conversation lasting almost an hour.

Dublin and London tried to avoid claims of victory but there was satisfaction at Westminster that the compromise by the Irish had swung the accord. One ministerial source said: "The Irish gave way and that has suddenly swung everything in favour of a deal."

The arrival of Mr Clinton put pressure on both sides to reach agreement, and British officials privately admitted the British wanted to avoid the US President taking credit as the peacemaker or peace-broker.

Last night's summit prevented any hope of the US President being allowed to bring the two prime ministers together on the lines of the famous Arafat- Rabin peace handshake, on the lawn of the White House.

British sources said the Irish clearly hope Mr Clinton will now put pressure on Gerry Adams, the Sinn Fein president, to accept the deal: "There is compromise on both sides. There are some things that Adams will not like. But there are other things that will have Ian Paisley hopping mad and David Trimble won't like."

The formula provides for an international commission, headed by George Mitchell, Mr Clinton's respected economic adviser, to oversee the dismantling of some IRA arms caches. In a twin-track approach, there will be simultaneous preliminary talks between the two governments and party leaders. They will try to lay the ground for all-party talks, which are due to start by the target date of the end of February. The Ulster Unionist proposal for an elected assembly in Ulster is included.

The Prime Minister assured MPs in the Commons, as rumours of the emergency summit swept Westminster, that there would be no compromise over the British demand that Sinn Fein should make progress on decommissioning before being admitted to the all-party talks.

A senior government source said the Irish had agreed to the formula for a twin-track strategy broadly laid out last Friday, before the Irish had pulled back. Under the formula, the British insist that the proposed international commission to deal with decommissioning of weapons will not be allowed to make recommendations on whether the IRA should fulfill the British preconditions about disarming before Sinn Fein can join all-party talks.

The compromise agreed by the British is that Sinn Fein will be able to give evidence to the commission on the so-called Washington Three demands, which set out the three conditions which Sinn Fein had to meet before they could join all-party talks, crucially that they had to give up some weapons first. It means that Sinn Fein will be able to discuss all weapons, including those held by the security forces.

The communique does not spell out the demand that the IRA ought to begin decommissioning of arms before Sinn Fein can join all-party talks, although Mr Major reaffirmed that this was still the British government's policy. The British insist that the commission will not be able to make recommendations on when arms are decommissioned, which the nationalists say is crucial. However, on the Irish side, there was an understanding that the commission would be able to consider timing.

The deal could lift the threat of a return to violence. Although British ministers denied reports that MI5 had intelligence that the IRA was planning a resumption of the armed struggle, the September summit was called off allegedly because the IRA had threatened "blood on the streets".

The Prime Minister will hold two hours of talks with President Clinton at Downing Street today after the US President lays a wreath on the tomb of the unknown warrior at Westminster Abbey. The President will visit Northern Ireland tomorrow, but Mr Major will not go with him. On Friday, Mr Clinton will visit Dublin.