Major opens door for Sinn Fein talks

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The Independent Online
JOHN MAJOR yesterday opened the door to official talks with Sinn Fein before the end of the year and unveiled a package of proposals to give new impetus to the peace process.

In a speech in Belfast the Prime Minister responded to criticisms that his handling of the peace initiative was too slow by unveiling a comprehensive package of measures. All 88 blocked border roads are to be reopened; Gerry Adams and Martin McGuinness of Sinn Fein will no longer be banned from Britain; and he declared his objective of a return to exclusively civilian policing. This will mean a progressive disappearance of troops from the streets.

Mr Major responded to the IRA's seven-week ceasefire by saying he was prepared to make the 'working assumption' that the cessation was permanent.

His speech - which, unusually, was welcomed by both Sinn Fein and the Ulster Unionist Party - contained a direct appeal to the people of Northern Ireland: 'You have not had this chance in years and you cannot afford to miss it . . . the chances of success are better than for generations.'

Speaking in Belfast's Europa Hotel, a much-bombed and now reconstructed symbol of hope for a new beginning for the city, he acknowledged that Herculean efforts were called for to overcome the effects of 25 years of terrorism. He sketched out initiatives on both the business and political fronts.

Left-wing Labour MPs last night issued an invitation to Mr Adams, the leader of Sinn Fein, to meet MPs in the Commons to outline his party's demands for the talks.

Downing Street sources did not rule out meetings between ministers and Mr Adams, but stressed that was some way off. The meetings before the end of the year would be at official level. Tory backbench MPs and Ulster Unionists last night underlined the need to disarm the IRA before Sinn Fein was admitted to the full talks with other democratic parties.

On Monday Mr Major and the Taoiseach, Albert Reynolds, are to discuss the framework document on future Anglo-Irish institutions. He also announced that a new British government document, to be published simultaneously, would include proposals for a new Belfast assembly.

The next phase of the process will centre on achieving demilitarisation, bringing Sinn Fein into the political mainstream, and laying the groundwork for future negotiations. Many months of talks will be required to work out such knotty questions.

The talks between government officials and Sinn Fein will, Mr Major specified, concern how the party can make the transition to normal political life as well as the issue of disposing of the arms still held by both the IRA and the loyalists. In the meantime, he sought to provide some assurance to his audience of business people, many of whom worry that Northern Ireland's fragile economy could be damaged by a dramatic reduction in the sizeable British subsidies that keep it afloat.

Mr Major said his government would take full account of Northern Ireland's exceptional economic and social difficulties in setting future public spending levels. He also looked forward to 'a substantial package of new measures and new money' from a new European Commission programme aimed at regenerating the inner cities.

Sinn Fein responded to the speech with an unusually warm welcome for a British pronouncement from Martin McGuinness, who said it had shown a degree of imagination which should now be built on.

Across the political divide, Ulster Unionist MP David Trimble also backed what he called another cautious step.

One of the few discordant notes was sounded by the Rev Ian Paisley, leader of the Democratic Unionist Party, who has been arguing that the Government has reached a secret deal with the republicans. He said: 'Everybody is going back on their word. How could the union be safe under such circumstances?'

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THE KEY POINTS

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- Assumption that IRA ceasefire is permanent

Government to seek talks with Sinn Fein by end of year

Lifting of bans on Gerry Adams and Martin McGuinness

Opening of all border roads

Proposals for a new Northern Ireland assembly

Troop presence reduced with the aim of entirely civilian policing

Contacts to be opened with loyalist paramilitaries

International investment conference next month in Belfast

European Union initiative for new money and measures

Pledge of continued public spending on Ulster

Consultations with business and civic leaders at Downing Street

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