Last-ditch summit on Ulster arms

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The Independent Online
NORTHERN IRELAND parties and British and Irish government officials will spend this weekend making final preparations for what promises to be the mother of all negotiating sessions, beginning in Belfast on Tuesday.

Talks are scheduled to resume on that date in an attempt to secure a final settlement of the arms decommissioning issue, in the hope that agreement will lead to the speedy formation of a new Northern Ireland cross-community government.

It was confirmed yesterday that members of the Balcombe Street gang, an IRA unit responsible for multiple killings in England in the 1970s, are being released from prison in the Irish Republic. Four members of the gang have already been freed, and will be formally discharged from prison next week.

With most attention focused on the question of whether the IRA and Sinn Fein will agree to the stipulation that some arms should be "put beyond use", the authorities may be hoping that such moves will help to improve the atmosphere in republican circles.

Gang members have been among the longest-serving republican prisoners, spending 24 years behind bars. Most of their term was served in English jails until their recent transfers to the Irish Republic.

The four men were sentenced to a total of 47 terms of life imprisonment for a number of murders and other offences, with further sentences totalling more than 2,000 years.

In republican circles the men are viewed as strong supporters of the peace process. Their controversial appearance at a Sinn Fein conference a year ago helped to secure an overwhelming vote in favour of republican entry into a Northern Ireland administration.

Next week's talks are seen as possibly the last serious obstacle to the formation of that administration, as all sides grapple with the decommissioning issue.

Although most of the pressure is on the republicans to put arms beyond use, there are also signs of strain within David Trimble's Ulster Unionist Party. Two of his assembly backbenchers have indicated their unhappiness with the draft declaration that emerged from the last session of talks at Hillsborough Castle near Belfast.

Sinn Fein has since said that it regards the draft declaration as unacceptable, and will be seeking to make radical changes to it. Martin McGuinness, Sinn Fein's chief negotiator, said yesterday his party was committed to overcoming the peace process deadlock, which he described as "maybe its greatest crisis".

He added: "The mood music out there is very, very bad at the moment. But, that said, I am not disheartened, I am not despondent. There is still a tremendous amount of hope about - a tremendous amount of optimism that all of this can work. What we have to do is get back in there next Tuesday and try and resolve it.

"There is no difficulty in relation to communications between ourselves and the governments. We are not going to run off like spoilt boys with our thumbs in our mouths. What we are going to do is buckle down to the task ahead of us. We are going to work with people in a very determined way to overcome the difficulties."