The remarks by Sir Patrick Mayhew, the Northern Ireland Secretary, marked a softening of the Government's language but increased pressure on the IRA to renew its ceasefire before the talks begin on 10 June.
Speaking to BBC Radio Ulster, Sir Patrick called for "parallel decommissioning" of weapons, as outlined in the Mitchell report. He said: "You start with your agreement to address the issue of decommissioning, implement the Mitchell compromise, and it happens in parallel... Of course, it ought to happen straightaway, but I don't think we can expect it to happen instantly. Equally, if they are sincere, it must happen soon."
He made clear that a ceasefire remained a precondition of Sinn Fein's entry into the talks.
The carefully-worded message was seen as an attempt to encourage Sinn Fein to deliver an IRA ceasefire. At one stage the Government had insisted talks would be impossible before weapons were handed over. However, the Northern Ireland Office said the Government had accepted the principle of decommissioning in parallel back in February.
Ulster Unionist MP Martin Smyth said that if Sir Patrick let Sinn Fein into talks without taking a step towards decommissioning, he should resign. David Wilshire, vice-chairman of the Tory backbench Northern Ireland committee, accused the Government of trying to "bribe" the IRA to call a ceasefire.
Sir Patrick meets the Irish foreign minister, Dick Spring, on Tuesday to seek a common position on decommissioning. Gerry Adams, president of Sinn Fein, has expressed concern that the talks would quickly become bogged down over the issue.
Although ministers have been edging towards a more flexible approach, they were careful not to articulate it before last week's elections in Northern Ireland, since it might have undermined the Ulster Unionists' position.
Republicans yesterday dampened speculation about an early IRA ceasefire. Following Sinn Fein's gains in the elections, London and Dublin repeated that an IRA ceasefire was a precondition of the party's involvement in talks - but both will be studying the implications of the vote.Reuse content