Mowlam restates terms for talks with Sinn Fein

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Senior Government officials have given Sinn Fein a definitive reply on the terms for talks after its leaders initiated a number of contacts with the Northern Ireland Office, it emerged yesterday.

Mo Mowlam, the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, said: "It's not negotiations. I'm not talking to them. But if they want clarification then it will happen. I'm not hiding anything."

Formal talks between Sinn Fein and the Government were broken off following the murder last month of two policemen in Lurgan, Co Armagh.

But Sinn Fein has since made a number of phone calls, and wrote two letters to the Northern Ireland Office, on 20 June and 2 July, and a reply was sent on 9 July to the questions that it had raised.

Speaking on Radio Ulster's Talkback programme, Ms Mowlam said: "What's important is that Sinn Fein cannot give any excuse that we have not clarified our position."

With multi-party talks on the future of Northern Ireland resuming today, the Ulster Unionists are putting strong pressure on Ms Mowlam to tighten the conditions for Sinn Fein participation.

Full-scale talks are scheduled to start in September, and the Government has said that any IRA ceasefire must hold for at least six weeks before Sinn Fein is allowed into those talks - genuine "by word and deed" - otherwise, the process will go ahead without the organisation.

"The talks will start on 15 September, without them if there is no ceasefire," Ms Mowlam said yesterday.

David Trimble, the leader of the Ulster Unionists, said Ms Mowlam was subject to "wishful thinking" if she thought that there could be a new and unequivocal IRA ceasefire.

As for the contacts between Sinn Fein and Government officials, Reg Empey, the Ulster Unionist's senior talks negotiator, said they would seriously damage the Government's credibility.

"It's as near negotiations as makes no difference and I think that is undermining our ability to trust this Government," Mr Empey said.

But Dennis Haughey, the negotiator for the nationalist Social Democratic and Labour Party, said that the Government was right to clarify its position to the republicans, "so the point is left where there is no excuse for not calling a complete end to all violence".