Northern Ireland: Blair confident as Ulster talks adjourn

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SINN FEIN and the IRA were told yesterday by the British and Irish governments that an act of republican disarmament will be necessary to secure entry into Northern Ireland's new government.

That message emerged from intensive negotiations at Hillsborough Castle near Belfast where Tony Blair, David Trimble, the Ulster Unionist Party leader, Gerry Adams, Sinn Fein president, and other major players had spent days and nights closeted in an attempt to resolve the arms decommissioning issue.

The exercise failed to produce full agreement on how to proceed, but it did yield a detailed sketch, approved by most of the participants, of how an act of decommissioning would ensure Sinn Fein's entry into the new executive that will run Northern Ireland.

All attention is now focused on the IRA and Sinn Fein, and on how they react to the consensus that decommissioning must accompany entry into the new government. The republicans are facing the fact that decommissioning is seen as an obligation, not only by Mr Trimble but across the political spectrum.

That consensus was presented to the republicans not in the form of a challenge but in the most soothing language possible, with Mr Blair and the others presenting decommissioning not as a demand but as "a collective act of reconciliation".

This would be accompanied by similar movement from loyalist paramilitary groups and by a relaxation of security measures by the authorities. These steps would be co-ordinated with political moves to set up the executive. In this way Mr Trimble would achieve the decommissioning on which he has staked so much, while Sinn Fein would be guaranteed its executive seats.

Negotiations have been pencilled in for 13 April. Republicans and loyalists will come under pressure to take the steps that would open the way to devolution. Since neither side has given any sign it is preparing for disarmament, it will be a time of much anxiety.

Because the document is marked "working draft" it conveys no overt sense of an ultimatum to the republicans. Its language has clearly been carefully designed to meet republican sensitivities, striving hard to avoid any implication that decommissioning would carry any overtone of surrender.

Mr Trimble seemed pleased. Mr Adams was non-committal. The latter now faces the options of seeking to sell decommissioning to the republican heartlands, or reporting back in 12 days that this is impossible, or seeking a renegotiation.

Further reports, pages 6,7