and DAVID MCKITTRICK
The Northern Ireland peace process was thrown into crisis last night when John Major and John Bruton, the British and Irish Prime Ministers, abandoned a summit due to be held today because of disagreement over an international commission on decommissioning IRA weapons.
The Irish government called off the summit after the two prime ministers were unable to resolve the differences over the commission in talks by telephone lasting half-an-hour. A statement issued in Dublin last night said the postponement of the summit was "to allow time to reconcile outstanding differences".
Fresh moves will be made by officials to revive the "on-off" summit early next week after Dublin insisted that there was no point going ahead with it unless there was a prospect of agreement.
An appeal for "steadiness" by the two governments was made by Sir Patrick Mayhew, the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, last night. "There are obviously troubles and difficulties and we have got to be steady," he said. Speaking on BBC television news, Sir Patrick indicated that the Government had believed it was on the verge of agreement with Dublin, adding: "I don't know what has occurred very recently."
He said the plan had been to have "parallel progress ... On the one hand you would have an independent commission throwing independent light on this difficult question of hanging on to illegal arms, parallel with groundwork talks as to how the main substantive negotiating talks can begin."
The summit's postponement amounts to a major and highly public failure of the Anglo-Irish diplomatic processes. It is seen as particularly serious in that the meeting had been designed to come up with a solution to the decommissioning impasse which has slowed down the peace process for many months.
Sinn Fein has pushed for all-party talks in advance of de-commissioning, but the Government has remained adamant that some actual decommissioning must take place first.
Positions have hardened in recent days with Sinn Fein leaders Gerry Adams and Martin McGuinness saying explicitly that not a single gun will be handed over by the IRA, while Sir Patrick, has repeated that there will be no round-table talks unless some actual weapons are produced.
Intense inter-governmental negotiations have failed to come up with a way of reconciling these positions. Whitehall sources said it was "too soon'' to say there was a threat of a return to violence by the IRA but British ministers privately blamed the Irish for the "caving in" to pressure from Sinn Fein and the IRA.
The two prime ministers had planned to hold the summit today at Chequers, and announce the setting up of an international commission to oversee the decommissioning of IRA guns.
They were also to announce a new round of trilateral talks involving the two governments and political leaders in Northern Ireland to bring Sinn Fein closer to the negotiating table.
The governments saw the international commission as a way round the arms impasse. The terms of reference became a sticking point with British ministers arguing that they should actively deal with disposing of IRA stockpiles of Semtex explosives and heavy weapons, while Dublin wanted the commission to come up with proposals for decommissioning after cross-party talks were under way. British sources said the two sides had been close to agreement on a possible compromise formula.
Throughout the day Mr Adams held a series of meetings in Dublin with Sinn Fein members and with high-ranking officials of the Irish Department of Foreign Affairs.
In London, a Whitehall source said: "Sinn Fein don't trust us and we don't trust them. They believe the international commission ... is really an instrument to get the IRA to surrender and they will not countenance surrender."
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