Major moves to break Ulster stalemate

Summit call: Prime Minister urges Sinn Fein to make concessions over IRA arms as 80 prisoners are freed
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John Major is expected to write today to John Bruton, the Irish Prime Minister, calling for an early summit on British proposals for ending the stalemate over the Northern Ireland peace process.

As more than 80 IRA and loyalist prisoners were released yesterday in a confidence-building measure, Mr Major warned that Sinn Fein had still "a long way to go" before it could enter talks. He called on Sinn Fein leaders to make concessions over their refusal to countenance the decommissioning of IRA weapons before being admitted to all-party talks.

He said: "Sinn Fein have been taking a very hard line in negotiations for some time. What Sinn Fein is saying about seeking peace I very much hope is true. But Sinn Fein have a long way still to go. I hope we can still get Sinn Fein into talks with the other parties but Sinn Fein have to accept they too have to make concessions. It isn't possible to enter into negotiations with a private army at their back. That is not the way to get into democratic politics." He is to ask Mr Bruton for "an early summit date - I hope it will not be too long". But the issue of IRA weapons remains the stumbling block which the two sides have to overcome. The Irish government is keen to proceed to all-party talks without it being used as a pre-condition that the IRA should begin disarming first before sitting down at the table.

Mr Major is adamant that some progress will have to be made before the Ulster Unionists will accept Sinn Fein in the talks. Mr Bruton and Mr Major will discuss putting off that crucial question until February, when the ground has been laid for the all-party talks to begin.

The Prime Minister will propose in his letter the twin-track strategy which has Dublin's broad support - an international commission chaired by George Mitchell, President Bill Clinton's economic adviser, to deal with the arms question; and simultaneous bilateral talks with each of the parties leading up to all-party talks. The process will be launched before the end of the year. Mr Major will include the idea by David Trimble, the Ulster Unionist leader, for early elections to an assembly in Ulster.

Although there was rejoicing among individual families of prisoners who were reunited as they were released yesterday, there was no sign that the move would infuse any new momentum into the peace process.

While extreme loyalist groups are displaying no real signs of any internal strains, Gerry Adams, Sinn Fein's president, continued to warn that the process was in danger. He said yesterday: "If we continue not to tackle the causes of conflict the conflict will re-occur. I say that with great regret and sadness and with a great sense of fear. I think it is patently clear that the British succeeded in making the peace process a high-wire act. That high-wire is now stretched like elastic."

The prison releases follow the passage through Parliament of a regulation increasing remission for some prisoners from one-third to a half. The Government's position is that there can be no amnesty, but that some early releases are possible on condition the ceasefires hold. Sir Patrick Mayhew, Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, retains the power to recall those released to prison.

Republicans have characterised the remission measure as belated, grudging and an inadequate response to the IRA cessation of August 1994. The Irish Republic unconditionally released several dozen republican prisoners within months of the ceasefire. Those freed yesterday were almost equally divided between republicans and loyalists: 53 had been held in the Maze prison near Belfast, while six more prisoners are due to be freed before Christmas.