Mayhew dampens Unionist talks fear

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The Independent Online
Sir Patrick Mayhew, the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, last night sought to calm Unionist concerns over a conduit for talks which it has opened with Sinn Fein by insisting that the Government was saying nothing in private that it was not already saying in public.

Speculation yesterday centred on the immediate and long-term intentions of the IRA, the implications of any new ceasefire for political talks, and Unionist suspicions that the government might contemplate a deal with the republicans.

In what amounted to a key government characterisation of the channel of communication, which involves the SDLP leader John Hume, Sir Patrick said: "If somebody represents to us that a restatement of our policy, in language that is clear and unequivocal would be helpful, then we will obviously want to consider that."

Sir Patrick's comments did not succeed in dispelling distrust within David Trimble's Ulster Unionist party, and were greeted with disbelief by the Rev Ian Paisley. A spokesman for the UUP, Jeffrey Donaldson said: "Given the evidence of the weekend, we would be very suspicious that there is a form of tic-tacking going on between government and Sinn Fein. Whether it's through Mr Hume or other intermediaries one cannot be sure."

Mr Paisley said: "The more they say they are not involved the more I think they are, because they have lied so much in the past. It seems to me an attempt is being made to buy off the threat of violence in Northern Ireland and the mainland by getting concessions to the IRA-Sinn Fein so that they can find an easy way into the talks.

"It's going to be another colossal sell-out and another colossal conditioning of the people to accept IRA - Sinn Fein on their terms."

But at the same time as the talk of contacts filled the air, the new RUC Chief Constable, Ronnie Flanagan, delivered the latest in a series of police warnings that more "spectacular" IRA attacks were to be expected in Ulster and in Britain.

He added, however, that he believed an internal debate was going on within the republican movement. On reports that a full-scale IRA "army convention" had been held at the weekend, he was less sure than some security sources have been of late, commenting: "I think there was a meeting of sorts. I am not going to say it was a convention."

In Irish Taoiseach, John Bruton, said he knew nothing of an IRA convention, but believed serious rethinking was going on within republicanism.