The moves raised speculation that a deal is being worked out between the Government and Sinn Fein to overcome the impasse over the decommissioning of IRA arms and kick-start the peace process.
The meeting at Stormont - the second in a week - was described as "constructive" by both sides, increasing the signs that a package is being prepared. It is expected to involve a large-scale transfer of IRA prisoners from British jails to Ireland; 50 per cent remission for prisoners serving life; and an international commission to oversee the destruction of some IRA weapons, particularly Semtex.
The Government was keen to play down expectations of any early announcement of a breakthrough. The Prime Minister, due to go on holiday to France tomorrow, has planned a summit with John Bruton, the Irish Prime Minister, in the first week in September. It is not expected any announcement will be made before then. Yesterday's meeting drew condemnation from Peter Robinson, the DUP MP, who said it showed ministers were "now in negotiation" with the Sinn Fein. He warned it would be a signal to Unionists that street protests were the way to get progress.
The three prisoners, Liam Heffernan and Martin McMonagle, both believed to be members of the Irish National Liberation Army, and IRA man Feilim O'Hadhmaill, were transferred to Ulster after ending their dirty protest over conditions in British jails.
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