Mayhew and Adams in Belfast summit

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The Independent Online
Sinn Fein president Gerry Adams and Sir Patrick Mayhew, the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, are to hold a hurriedly arranged meeting in Belfast this morning to discuss the Government's plan for a Northern Ireland election.

The meeting was scheduled at short notice because Mr Adams is due to leave for a visit to the US. The Sinn Fein president has already declared his party "absolutely and implacably opposed" to an election.

A meeting of minds between the two men is therefore highly unlikely, given that Sir Patrick and other ministers have spent several days attempting to persuade nationalists that the election plan is not motivated by a desire to court Unionist votes. The meeting is being held at the government's request.

David Trimble, the Ulster Unionist leader, has meanwhile privately made clear to ministers that if elections were held, he would be prepared to sit down with Sinn Fein leaders while parallel moves were made to disarm the IRA.

The compromise removes the pre-condition, set out by the British Government in Washington, that Sinn Fein would be admitted to all-party talks only after a start on decommissioning had taken place.

Mr Trimble has told ministers he has "finessed" the Ulster Unionist conditions for engaging in all-party talks, and does not understand the reason for the nationalist rejection of the proposed elections. Some Unionist statements had implied the party was still clinging to the position that, even after an election, arms would have to be handed in before talks.

John Bruton, the Irish Prime Minister, also tried to take the heat out of the row, which threatened to sour relations between London and Dublin, after Dick Spring, the Irish Foreign Secretary, accused Mr Major of trying to "divide and rule".

The Taoiseach replied to a letter from Mr Major at the weekend, urging the Prime Minister to focus on the Mitchell commission conclusions that the IRA would not decommission arms before all-party talks began. He did not reject elections to appoint the negotiating teams, but insisted it was premature to make a decision at this stage. British ministers showed no sign of slackening support, although the nationalists remain hostile.

Mr Major will meet John Hume, leader of the nationalist SDLP, today to try to answer Mr Hume's objections.

n Gerry Adams could be allowed to address a Sinn Fein rally in Trafalgar Square, after the Government's decision to lift the 23-year-old ban on protest meetings about Northern Ireland at the landmark.