Mandela joins hunt for peace in Ulster

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The level of political activity in Northern Ireland maintained its almost hectic pace - and its international flavour - yesterday as some of the major political figures jetted off to South Africa for a conflict resolution conference.

This followed President Clinton's re-affirmation earlier this week that his administration will maintain a high level of interest in Northern Ireland generally and in particular the prospects for a renewed IRA ceasefire.

This means the British, Irish and US governments are all urging the IRA to lay down its arms again. All three are also saying, in their own ways, that doing so would secure Sinn Fein's entry into round-table political talks.

From the republican camp, however, have come allegations of government foot-dragging in this week's meeting between a Sinn Fein delegation led by Martin McGuinness and Northern Ireland Office officials.

Sinn Fein president Gerry Adams said that at the meeting, the second in a series, the officials "were not able to give any clarity whatsoever" on the question of Sinn Fein's entry into talks. He added: "I think the style of this British government is different, and I welcome that, but I am a bit concerned that the officials may be running government policy at this point."

In a response, Mo Mowlam, Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, said it was difficult to say how long the clarification process between Sinn Fein and the Government would go on, but added: "It won't be an elongated process." This is viewed as signifying that a substantive response to Sinn Fein's points will be given in the near future.

In the meantime, several dozen politicians, the most senior of whom is Ulster Unionist leader David Trimble, have flown to South Africa for a weekend conference. Its primary purpose is not to bring the participants together but to have some of the architects of the South African settlement explain to them how it was achieved. The Unionists have insisted on strict segregation from the Sinn Fein delegation which is headed by Martin McGuinness. The two factions have separate travelling and accommodation arrangements, and will attend separate sessions.

The conference yesterday received the blessing of President Nelson Mandela, who said his country would do whatever it could to help Northern Ireland. He added: "What is significant is that they are here, and that alone is a sign that they are serious in searching for peace.

"Naturally we will give whatever help we can. We are reluctant to urge other countries to follow exactly the path that we have followed, but whatever help they want, we will place it before them and leave it to them to decide which aspects of our own transformation will be suitable having regard to their specific conditions."

In Dublin, meanwhile, the Taoiseach John Bruton said an opportunity had been created for Sinn Fein to convert its electoral mandate into a mandate for peace by getting the IRA to stop violence. He added: "To my mind, if the republican case is a good case, they don't need to rely on bullets and hurling sticks and beating people up to persuade them. If they have a good case, why can't they throw away the crutch of violence and work as normal democratic politicians?"

Back in Belfast, the RUC's chief constable, Ronnie Flanagan, reflected the growing assumption that an IRA ceasefire is on the cards at some stage in the next few weeks. He said: "I think it's an inevitability but when you say at this stage I couldn't give any time-scale. It would be wrong at this stage. I have no intelligence to say that that is imminent. It has to come about, it should come about forthwith."

Mr Flanagan said his force was ready to implement far-reaching changes to its structures but could not do so in advance of a new ceasefire and in advance of the establishment of lasting peace.