`Peace deal first, then weapons'

Sinn Fein leaders confident that talks with British ministers will begin, despite impasse over arms
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Sinn Fein leaders said last night they still expected talks to begin with British ministers "within weeks" despite the reimposition of Britain's condition requiring "substantial progress" on decommissioning of IRA weapons before ministerial contacts with Republicans can begin.

On television yesterday, Sir Patrick Mayhew, Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, reasserted his stipulation that Sinn Fein "was not yet qualified" to meet British ministers because of the arms issue. Sinn Fein's president, Gerry Adams, said last night he was not surprised by Mr Mayhew's intervention, given Unionist rejection of the Framework Document and Wednesday's critical Commons vote on Europe.

Mr Adams said Sinn Fein was already engaged in dialogue with other governments and he was confident talks with ministers would begin soon. "It's only a matter of when, not if, that finally comes about."

Pressed on the arms issue on Irish radio, Mr Adams said: "The Irish have a tradition of putting the pike in the thatch after periods of conflict." In other conflicts there was no evidence of insurgents giving up weapons until after a peace settlement, he said.

Martin McGuinness, leader of Sinn Fein's delegation in talks with British civil servants at Stormont, said discussions on the party's response to the Framework Document could only be conducted at the highest level with British Cabinet members. "The time for hiding behind civil servants has gone."

Earlier, the Sinn Fein Ard Fheis, or annual conference, reflected the party leadership's satisfaction with the Framework Document as a basis for negotiations. But the outgoing party chairman, Tom Hartley, said Britain was "contradicting the tone" of the document by refusing to talk directly to Sinn Fein.

In his keynote address, Mr Adams said "decisive challenges" lay ahead that would require the holding of a special conference before next year's Ard Fheis.

"Our principles have not and must not change, but our strategic objectives . . . must be rooted in objective reality," he advised.

A senior ally of Mr Adams indicated privately the strategy reappraisal would address how Sinn Fein might accommodate Unionists in a period of transition.

Addressing Unionists, Mr Adams said: "I too am an Ulsterman. We don't need British ministers to rule us. We are well able to agree on our own future. I appeal to Unionists to bring your hopes and dreams, your concerns, your fears to the conference table."

Mr McGuinness said republicans would not involve themselves in any body which denied Irish people the right of self-determination. But they would "consider transitional arrangements which are linked to a clear commitment by Britain to end British jurisdiction in our country".

Pamela Kane, given early release three weeks ago from Limerick prison after serving nearly five years for her part in an IRA bank robbery, was given a standing ovation after she insisted early release of republican prisoners was an essential part of any overall settlement. "If anyone thinks we will abandon the prisoners, they had better think again," she said.

Sinn Fein is organising a national campaign to win support for early releases.