Major takes initiative on Ulster talks

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Chief Political Correspondent

John Major yesterday wrote to the Irish Prime Minister, John Bruton, with proposals to get the "twin-track" Northern Ireland peace initiative up and running before the end of the year.

Senior British ministers last night said that all-party inclusive talks could start by next February, but Mr Major refused to withdraw the British demand that the IRA begins decommissioning its weapons before Sinn Fein can sit down with the Ulster Unionists.

Brushing aside Irish criticism of Britain for allegedly dragging its heels, Mr Major sought Mr Bruton's support for the strategy involving preparatory talks with all the parties and an international commission to deal with the IRA's stockpile of bombs and heavy weapons.

London and Dublin are still at odds over the British demand, the third condition set out in Washington by Sir Patrick Mayhew, the Northern Ireland Secretary, that the IRA should begin decommissioning its weapons before Sinn Fein is admitted to the substantive talks.

There appeared a willingness by London to move forward without resolving that issue. "We don't agree on Washington Three. We can put that on one side temporarily to see if there is a basis for agreement," said a senior Government source.

The willingness to move forward without resolving the crucial issue of decommissioning pleased Dublin sources, who welcomed the Prime Minister's letter. "It's been called constructive confusion," said one source.

The twin-track strategy was to be announced at a summit in September, until called off by Dublin after a warning by Sinn Fein that it would not accept the international commission.

Since then, Dublin has been seeking to persuade Sinn Fein to accept the formula, but talks with Michael Ancram, the Minister of State for Northern Ireland, broke down a week ago, with Sinn Fein demanding that British Army weapons be counted with their own by the commission.

Dublin supported the British Government in rejecting that demand, and the success of the initiative will now depend on the ability of the Irish Government to persuade Sinn Fein to join the talks process. British ministers meanwhile will have to get the Ulster Unionists to enter the talks.

Mr Major attacked the Sinn Fein leadership in his speech to the Commons yesterday for refusing to condemn the punishment beatings meted out to victims in Belfast by IRA supporters. But Downing Street sources made it clear the Prime Minister was not setting out a new condition for Sinn Fein to enter the all-party talks. "It's something which genuinely upsets him. It is not a new condition, or Washington Four," said the source.

Meanwhile, David Trimble, the Ulster Unionist leader, and Ian Paisley, the DUP leader, joined forces at Westminster to mark their united opposition to the Anglo-Irish Agreement 10 years ago giving influence over Northern Ireland affairs to the Irish Government.

They both rejected the twin- track approach.