Ministers draw closer to deal on disarming

Northern Ireland: Progress on decommissioning gives hope for post- election inter-party talks
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The Independent Online
British and Irish ministers are believed to have made significant progress in closing the gap between them on handling the controversial decommissioning issue in next month's inter-party talks in Belfast.

According to reliable sources, progress was made in the talks in Dublin between the Northern Ireland Secretary, Sir Patrick Mayhew, and Dick Spring, the Irish Foreign Minister. The two will meet again next week, in the wake of tomorrow's election in Northern Ireland.

The fact that progress was made will keep alive the faint glimmer of hope for an IRA ceasefire to allow Sinn Fein into the talks, due to open on 10 June. Republican sources, however, are giving no indication that such a move is to be expected.

Mr Spring said "satisfactory" progress had been made at yesterday's talks, and emphatically denied there was any risk of the all-party talks being postponed. Irish ministers are convinced paramilitaries on both sides will only agree to start disarming once real political progress is made in the talks, and that Sinn Fein may not co-operate if immediate decommissioning is a pre-condition.

Unionists are demanding an early start to decommissioning soon after the talks convene. London has been unwilling to endorse Mr Spring's proposal for a parallel "fourth strand" in the all-party talks to tackle decommissioning, which might be chaired by former United States senator George Mitchell.

Mr Mitchell is said to be reluctant to become involved in the all-party talks unless invited by both governments.

Washington backs his participation, sensing it could help convince sceptical republicans that talks will be meaningful and substantive. Dublin similarly wants a broader role for Mr Mitchell than simply chairing decommissioning talks. The Taoiseach, John Bruton, yesterday told the Dail that he wanted the arms issue resolved in line with Mr Mitchell's February formula that some arms be decommissioned during the all-party negotiations.

Earlier, the IRA was warned it would be a "serious political blunder" to fail to renew the ceasefire and thus exclude Sinn Fein from the talks. Alliance Party leader, Dr John Alderdice, said: "Patience is wearing thin."

Sinn Fein president Gerry Adams said yesterday: "We must have some positive political will and evidence of positive political will on behalf of the British Government if they are going to bring about the type of agreement necessary."