Ministers angry and surprised

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The Independent Online
John Major and Sir Patrick Mayhew last night surveyed the wreckage of the peace process with one question uppermost in their minds: what went wrong?

Sir Patrick said yesterday he was "frankly surprised" at the Irish for calling off the summit which was to have been held yesterday at Chequers between Mr Major and John Bruton, the Irish Prime Minister.

Downing Street showed its irritation by insisting that Dublin announce the postponement, clearly laying the blame at Mr Bruton's door. It had been planned to announce an international commission to oversee the decommissioning of IRA weapons and a parallel fresh round of trilateral talks to draw Sinn Fein gradually into the all-party talks process.

"Something happened over the weekend, which changed the Irish government's mind," said a British ministerial source last night. "Last week Bruton said it was not an unreasonable assumption to expect an international commission to be established at the summit. They were the first to make it public."

The difficulties were becoming apparent on Monday when Sir Patrick met Dick Spring, the Irish Foreign Minister, in Dublin and Gerry Adams, the Sinn Fein President, in Belfast. But Sir Patrick emerged from the Dublin meeting convinced the summit was still on.

It was called off late on Tuesday by the Irish after a flurry of calls between the two prime ministers and their officials. The Northern Ireland Office believes the Irish "wobbled" because of pressure exerted by Sinn Fein. Mr Adams had been making it clear for weeks that he had no scope for manoeuvre on the British demand that decommissioning should commence as a pre-condition for entering all-party talks.

Mr Adams wanted a deadline for Sinn Fein to be included in all-party talks by President Bill Clinton's arrival in Ireland at the end of November. British ministers said that could not be guaranteed, but they said Sinn Fein would be engaged in new trilateral talks before then.

The British sources denied reports that they had withdrawn late last week a detailed timetable from the summit accord. They also doubt that the terms of reference for the commission were the problem. "It has been suggested that somehow it was called off because it involved the third of the Washington principles set out by Paddy [Mayhew]. But it didn't," said the ministerial source.

The breakdown seems to have been over the perception of the commission. The British saw it as a way of getting Sinn Fein to give up some arms to get its members into talks; the Irish may have seen it as a means of fudging the issue. It foundered on a breakdown of trust.