Ministers hint at talks with Sinn Fein

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The Independent Online
Ministers hinted last night that they may be prepared to meet Sinn Fein for the first time since the IRA ceasefire, as John Hume, the SDLP leader, met John Major to press for more progress on the peace process.

The SDLP leader, accompanied by three SDLP MPs, urged on the Prime Minister at the meeting in Downing Street the need for ministers to engage in direct talks with Sinn Fein.

Ulster Unionist MPs are alarmed at the possibility of a meeting between ministers and Sinn Fein before the IRA has decommissioned its weapons.

The Ulster Unionists' threat to withdraw support from the Government will be underlined at a meeting today between James Molyneaux, the Ulster Unionist leader, and senior Conservative MPs. More worrying for the Government, Mr Molyneaux has agreed to meetIan Paisley, the DUP leader, in a possible rapprochement between two Unionist parties.

The Irish government and the SDLP are worried by the failure to make more progress in the talks between officials and Sinn Fein leaders over the release of IRA prisoners and the decommissioning of weapons.

The Northern Ireland Office last night denied speculation among Ulster Unionist MPs that Michael Ancram, the minister acting as a go-between for the democratic parties, would join the talks with Sinn Fein for the first time tomorrow.

But a statement issued by the NIO did not rule out an early meeting. It said ministers would "continue to review the progress of the dialogue meeting-by- meeting and would judge their own active participation on the basis of progress that had been made and on whether their involvement might assist in achieving the successful outcome they seek."

Mr Molyneaux is expected to meet Mr Major later this week. The Prime Minister has embarked on a new round of meetings with the party leaders, at their request, in an attempt to reassure them about the framework document for Northern Ireland which threatened to disrupt the peace process last week when parts of it were leaked.