Last-ditch deal rescues Irish peace

New accord to greet Clinton
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The Independent Online

Chief Political Correspondent

A compromise by both sides led to a last-minute breakthrough in the Anglo- Irish peace talks last night, after a day of desperate negotiations between officials to reach an accord before the arrival of the US President Bill Clinton in Britain today.

John Major and John Bruton were expected to put the seal on the agreement to end the deadlock and open the way to all- party talks involving Sinn Fein and the Ulster Unionists.

After brinkmanship on both sides, Dublin and London tried to avoid claiming victory but there were reports at Westminster of a compromise by the Irish. One ministerial source said: "The Irish gave way and that has suddenly swung everything in favour of a deal."

The arrival of the US President put pressure on both sides to reach a deal, and British officials privately admitted that the British side wanted to avoid Mr Clinton being seen as the peacemaker. The two Prime Ministers may announce the details while Mr Clinton is in Britain, but the US President will not be allowed to bring the two Prime Ministers together like the famous Arafat- Rabin peace handshake on the lawn of the White House.

"There will be no tryptich in Dublin," said one official.

British sources said the Irish were clearly hoping that 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 will provide for an international commission, probably headed by George Mitchell, Mr Clinton's respected economic adviser, to oversee the dismantling of some of the IRA arms caches. In a twin-track approach, there will be simultaneous preliminary talks between the two governments and party leaders. They will attempt to lay the ground for all-party talks, which could start in February. The Ulster Unionists' proposal for an elected assembly in Ulster will be included.

The Prime Minister assured MPs in the Commons, as rumours of an emergency summit swept through 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 pulling back. Under the formula, the British insist that the precondition on arms, known as Washington Three, will not be included in the remit of the proposed international commission to deal with decommissioning of weapons.

The compromise agreed by the British is that Sinn Fein will be able to give evidence to the commission on Washington Three and on all the weapons, including those held by the security forces. The British insist the commission will not be able to make recommendations on those two issues, which the nationalists say are crucial.

However, on the Irish side, there was an understanding that the commission would be able to report on those issues.

Mr Major faced Tory backbench pressure in the Commons not to give way on the decommissioning demand for the IRA. He replied: "The building blocks paper we published recently sets down specific requirements for the body's report. It sets down also that the international body is not being established to make recommendations on when the decommissioning should start. That has not been changed."

The issue was raised during Prime Minister's Questions by Mrs Margaret Ewing (SNP Moray) who said: "There is now widespread concern at what appears to be an impasse. In these circumstances do you now feel it is time to establish an international commission to help matters on?"

Mr Major told her: "I naturally hope we will soon be able launch what has become known as the twin-track initiative. I have had a further conversation with the Irish Prime Minister earlier today and I expect to speak to him later on this afternoon."

Ulster Unionist leader David Trimble said he was "deeply sceptical" about the "twin-track" strategy that London and Dublin were working on.

He insisted it would not deal with the real problems. "It would merely set up some procedures and postpone ... the crucial decision on whether Sinn Fein-IRA are prepared to prove they are committed to exclusively peaceful means by beginning to dispose of their, we hope, now redundant weapons."