Major offers olive branch to IRA

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The Independent Online
John Major last night extended what amounted to an olive branch to the IRA and Sinn Fein with a newspaper article which indicated his intention not to allow peace talks to become stalled by the issue of arms decommissioning.

In an article written by Mr Major for today's Dublin-based Irish Times, Mr Major said decommissioning needed to be addressed at the beginning of the talks and agreement reached on how it can be "taken forward, without blocking the negotiations". The Prime Minister added: "I want Sinn Fein to be part of the negotiations. They have an important contribution to make."

This was regarded by Dublin sources to amount to a conciliatory gesture towards the republicans, who have been pressing for assurances that the peace talks would include far-reaching political negotiations.

They will have been encouraged by Mr Major's statement that the talks will be "a genuine and serious effort to reach a comprehensive settlement, covering all the issues of concern and acceptable to all concerned".

While Mr Major, as expected, repeated the condition that Sinn Fein would not be allowed to attend the talks unless the IRA declared a ceasefire, his language and general approach was described by nationalist observers as helpful and non-confrontational.

Both London and Dublin have specified that the decommissioning issue must be "addressed" at the opening of talks, but Mr Major has not given way to pressure from the Ulster Unionist leader, David Trimble, for it to be both addressed and resolved before political negotiations open.

In other words, republicans are looking for a guarantee that an actual handover of arms will not be required in advance.

London and Dublin will be hoping that Mr Major's words will be enough to have the IRA seriously consider another ceasefire. Gerry Adams and other Sinn Fein leaders have indicated there is little prospect of a ceasefire until they know the talks will not simply be a decommissioning conference.

Sinn Fein will be studying Mr Major's words carefully. They are then likely to see whether further assurances are forthcoming before deciding whether to push for a ceasefire.