London-Dublin split over IRA ceasefire

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CONFUSION SURROUNDED the state of the IRA ceasefire last night after David Andrews, the Irish Foreign Minister, was rebuked by Mo Mowlam for claiming that it was still intact.

Ms Mowlam, the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, effectively slapped Mr Andrews down by saying she had yet to make a final judgement on whether the ceasefire was holding. She said she was waiting for more information from Dublin and the United States on claims that the IRA was involved in arms smuggling.

Her verdict could lead to the release of IRA prisoners being suspended, which the Irish government fears could severely damage the peace process.

Government sources said Mr Andrews had simply been "responsible for confusion" and had not inadvertently revealed a decision which had been agreed with Ms Mowlam to take no action against the IRA.

The dispute followed talks in Belfast which underlined the highly sensitive nature of the decision Ms Mowlam is expected to take within the next 48 hours. At a news conference, Mr Andrews said the IRA ceasefire was intact despite the killing of an alleged police informer, Charles Bennett. "The ceasefire has been intact for a number of years now and the IRA in the round have not been using their weapons. That is my view and it is the view of the [Irish] government," he said.

But Ms Mowlam quickly stepped in. "No. I would like to reserve my judgement until I have full information. I am reviewing the state of the IRA ceasefire and others in the light of recent events which I continue to view very seriously indeed," she said.

She denied there was a split between London and Dublin over the issue. Mr Andrews later told Irish radio Ms Mowlam required more information before reaching a decision. The Ulster Unionist MP Willie Ross accused Dublin of trying to "pre-empt" Ms Mowlam's decision.

Sinn Fein could boycott the review of the peace talks by the former US senator George Mitchell if Ms Mowlam penalises the IRA, but the Ulster Unionists have warned she will be condemned if she fails to act.