Chief Political Correspondent
A secret offer to enter a new round of bilateral talks involving all the parties in Northern Ireland has been made to Gerry Adams by Sir Patrick Mayhew in an attempt to break the deadlock over the peace process.
The offer by the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland to the Sinn Fein president in private talks was intended to meet half-way Sinn Fein's demands to be allowed into all-party talks.
"They are very keen on equal status. This would give them that," said a government source.
Other moves over IRA prisoners are being made behind the scenes in the run up to the first anniversary of the ceasefire at the end of this month. They include the likely transfer of a republican prisoner, Patrick Kelly, from Whitemoor jail, Cambridgeshire, to hospital in Belfast for treatment for skin cancer. Officials from London and Dublin are discussing the practicalities of transferring prisoners to Ireland under a European Union convention.
The British government has been keen to damp down expectations of a breakthrough to mark the first anniversary of the ceasefire at the end of the month, but ministers are equally keen to be seen to be moving forward.
John Major and John Bruton, the Irish Prime Minister, have pencilled in a summit for the first week in September in the hope of announcing progress. Sir Patrick will return from holiday days before the first anniversary, raising expectations of a preliminary announcement before the end of the month.
The Ulster Unionists are likely to be highly sceptical about taking part in a new round of "talks about talks", although they are ready to enter the all-party negotiations.
It is almost certain to raise suspicions of a Government climbdown by Unionist hard-liners but the Government has made it clear to Mr Adams they cannot move to inclusive all-party talks without progress on decommissioning. The Ulster Unionists have refused to take part in all-party talks while Sinn Fein and the IRA have "guns under the table".
Mr Adams said last week there was no room for manoeuvre over the IRA's refusal to give up its weapons. There is no guarantee that Mr Adams and the Sinn Fein leadership will accept the compromise of bilateral talks leading to all-party talks, but Government sources were heartened that Mr Adams did not rule it out.
The pressure on British ministers was intensified last week by President Bill Clinton who expressed the hope that Sinn Fein would be allowed into all-party talks before his visit to the UK in November. He hinted at the secret formula in an interview. "I know that the Irish and British governments are committed to finding a way to remove any impediments [to talks]," he said.
Intelligence reports suggest the ceasefire is not in imminent danger. But Mr Adams warned the peace process would be "in a crisis" if all- party talks were not under way in time for Mr Clinton's visit.Reuse content