Major in 'constructive' talks on Irish peace

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The Independent Online


Downing Street officials were last night hopeful the Mitchell Commission report will put renewed pressure on Sinn Fein to begin decommissioning of arms after a "constructive" meeting with John Major.

The American Senator George Mitchell said after talks with the Prime Minister lasting nearly two hours that his commission's report will be delivered to the British and Irish governments next Thursday, keeping the peace process on track.

In an upbeat report on the talks, Senator Mitchell described Mr Major as "courageous" and said there had been positive steps and helpful discussions. British officials believe the constructive nature of the talks suggested that the commission's report will add weight to the demands for the IRA to go further than it has so far.

The Ulster Unionists had earlier poured scorn on the Sinn Fein proposal to allow the IRA to decommission its own weapons. The British government reacted more cautiously to the Sinn Fein statement. The Prime Minister's office said: "He is not particularly bothered how you decommission as long as it is credible and verifiable."

Mr Major told the Mitchell commission, which will hold discussions in Dublin today, that the Sinn Fein proposal had not altered Britain's demand that some progress should be made on decommissioning by the IRA before Sinn Fein is admitted to all-party talks.

There was cautious optimism among Ulster Unionists initially that the proposals by Sinn Fein showed significant movement. The idea of the IRA decommissioning its own weapons, overseen by an independent observer, was in line with the range of options set out some months ago by British ministers.

First indications of a thaw from the Ulster Unionists were reversed last night after the small print in the Sinn Fein statement had been studied.

Ken Maginnis, the Ulster Unionists' security spokesman, rejected a Sinn Fein suggestion that the IRA would consider destroying its own weapons only after an overall political settlement on the future of Northern Ireland was reached.

The idea was "totally unacceptable, unworkable and unattainable", he said.

The Mitchell commission will finalise its report after talks with John Bruton, the Irish Prime Minister today and discussions with Unionist MPs and loyalist representatives over the weekend.

In its document, Sinn Fein said Britain's proposal that those in possession of illegal arms could be responsible for their destruction was a method which "may find acceptance" among republicans.

But an early breakthrough in the stalemate on disarmament appeared unlikely as Sinn Fein ruled out any decommissioning in advance of an overall political settlement.

Even a gesture at this stage would symbolise an IRA surrender, Sinn Fein said.