Mowlam puts faith in peace impetus

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Northern Ireland secretary Mo Mowlam and Sinn Fein president, Gerry Adams, concluded their first face-to-face meeting in 18 months yesterday, saying they hoped the impetus towards a new peace process would continue to move forward.

Ms Mowlam and Mr Adams spent more than two hours in "constructive" and "business-like" talks at Stormont's Castle Buildings, twice the time anticipated for the meeting. They did not shake hands publicly, but said they had done so at the start of the meeting.

Mr Adams, who issued a call for a united Ireland immediately before the meeting, headed a five-strong delegation, which included Martin McGuinness and Martin Ferris, who was convicted in 1984 of gun-running for the IRA. His presence was seen to be significant, due to his influence on the hard- line elements of the party.

Ms Mowlam, accompanied by political affairs minister, Paul Murphy, urged the earliest possible decommissioning of weapons and said she hoped circumstances would enable further meetings to take place.

"We discussed a wide range of issues including prisoners, parades, equality of treatment, security and other confidence- building measures. I confirmed that the Government remains committed to the joint paper on decommissioning and urged Sinn Fein to work to achieve the earliest possible decommissioning of all paramilitary weapons," she said.

Ms Mowlam described Mr Adams as a "strong, competent leader" of his party, adding that she hoped that the ceasefire would continue in the weeks ahead, and that he would be able to take his place at the talks table with the other parties.

She said she felt that the meeting had helped convince her of Mr Adams' commitment to peace. What had come forward, she said, was an acknow-ledgement on both sides "that everyone has to change a bit". Ms Mowlam was mindful that victims of IRA violence might criticise her decision to meet with the Sinn Fein delegation, and apologised in advance.

"[I'm] sorry if I have caused them upset and anger at what we've done by talking to Sinn Fein, but we worked hard to get the IRA ceasefire, as did other people. The only way we are going to get to a state where we do not get further killings and violence and loss of lives is if we sit down and talk. I think we're closer than for many, many years."

Mr Adams, meanwhile, said he was satisfied that the items that would help lead to a lasting peace settlement were now on the agenda. The main point Sinn Fein had pushed during the day's meeting was the ending of the union, a point enlarged upon in a five-page "introductory document", which claimed that British rule sustained a culture of "discrimination, inequality and intolerance".