The confirmation that more than a hundred paramilitary prisoners in Northern Ireland are shortly to have their sentences cut was given a dusty reception by Sinn Fein and denounced by loyalist politicians as a sell- out.
The announcement, made in Belfast by the Northern Ireland Secretary, Sir Patrick Mayhew, was flagged as an important keynote address a year after the IRA ceasefire. But while Sir Patrick also announced an autumn White Paper on future policing structures, and a review of emergency legislation, he made no new offers on all-party talks or on the arms-decommissioning issue.
Although Sir Patrick declared the Government was not seeking an IRA surrender, his speech left unbroken the logjam in which the Government wants decommissioning to begin before talks, while Sinn Fein argues that decommissioning will not begin before negotiations open.
The Sinn Fein chairman, Mitchel McLaughlin, said the Government was taking a minimalist approach with "none of the generosity or imagination required".
But Sir Patrick denied the Government might lose the chance of peace "for want of vision and commitment or through inertia". He said: "We reject, and with disgust, any claim that the peace process is dead. We have no interest whatever in frustrating, delaying or stalling genuine progress."
The prison move took the form of proposed new legislation to increase remission for 400 of Northern Ireland's 1,000 paramilitary prisoners from one-third to one-half. This is expected to bring forward the release dates of around 120 republicans and loyalists.
Loyalist paramilitary groups and a number of nationalist sources welcomed the initiative, though most made it clear that they hoped it was a first instalment rather than the Government's final position on prisoners.
The Irish Government and Dublin opposition parties welcomed the remission move. Dublin ministers had been seeking its restoration for some time, and strongly increased this pressure last month amid a universally angry Irish reaction to the freeing of the paratrooper Private Lee Clegg.
This was accompanied by renewed calls for the transfer of Irish prisoners in Britain to jails in Northern Ireland and for release dates for long- term inmates.
Sinn Fein is looking to two important meetings early next month for signs of a breakthrough on this issue. Sir Patrick is expected to meet the Sinn Fein president, Gerry Adams, for talks, and John Major is scheduled to meet John Bruton for an Anglo-Irish summit.
Sir Patrick said yesterday: "We have responded very imaginatively and flexibly. Unfortunately this has been a one-way process: we have not seen flexibility and response of a similar character from those who hold illegal arms."
His speech contained assurances to Unionists on the principle of consent, and promises that the Government was not in the business of buying peace at too high a price.
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