Mayhew signals softer line on IRA weapons

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The Independent Online
The Government yesterday gave rise to speculation that it might soften its position on the de-commissioning of IRA weapons after an Anglo- Irish ministerial meeting in Belfast.

The Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, Sir Patrick Mayhew, and the Irish Foreign Minister, Dick Spring, both indicated after their meeting that they favoured setting up an international commission to examine the issue.

Sir Patrick repeated that the Government still favoured the stipulation that some IRA weaponry should be de-commissioned before Sinn Fein could be allowed to enter all-party talks. But he left open the possibility that the position might change if a commission came up with a better idea.

Both governments appear to agree on a twin-track approach, with a commission working on the weapons issue while all parties are invited to talks designed to pave the way for full all-party negotiations. This approach was endorsed by President Clinton's national security advisor, Anthony Lake, who was in London for talks with Sir Patrick and with the Foreign Secretary, Malcolm Rifkind.

Sinn Fein last night called on the Government to call all-party talks without preconditions. Party chairman Mitchell McLaughlin said: "Sinn Fein is prepared to look positively at any formula which will move the situation forward in this context." He described the demand for a surrender of IRA weapons as unrealistic and unattainable.

Sir Patrick said after yesterday's meeting that as far as the government was concerned, de-commissioning was the only way of achieving the necessary confidence for talks. But he added: "It is theoretically possible that a commission might find some other means by which the necessary confidence can be generated. If that is the case - and we can't see it at the moment - then we would want to look at that very closely."

Opinion was divided last night on whether this amounted to a slightly less stark than usual presentation of the Government's position, or whether it represented the first step away from the stipulation.

Mr Spring said a formal announcement of the establishment of a commission had not been made because more work needed to be done by officials. But he was hopeful talks would get under way "sooner rather than later".