Hopes of restoring the IRA ceasefire were raised last night after Sinn Fein leaders gave a cautious welcome to the declaration by the Irish and British Governments of a fixed date on 10 June for the start all-party talks to revive the Northern Ireland peace process.
A joint peace formula announced by John Major and John Bruton, the Irish Prime Minister in Downing Street, was clearly aimed at giving Gerry Adams, the Sinn Fein president, the firm date he had demanded to go back to the IRA to call off the renewed campaign of bombing in London.
But Mr Major warned Sinn Fein that the two governments were "not in the mood to allow the peace process to be derailed". Underlining the commitment to go ahead with the plans without Sinn Fein, if the IRA rejected the peace offer, he said: "If the violence were reactivated after the negotiations began, the negotiations would continue."
British officials remain sceptical that the IRA will accept the package and believe the IRA may object to the preconditions to Sinn Fein being admitted to the talks.
Mr Adams said he extended "a cautious welcome" to the setting of a fixed date for talks, but went on to warn that enormous difficulties remained to rebuilding a peace process. He said Sinn Fein would attempt to explore the proposals positively, adding that everyone must be prepared to take risks to put the peace process back on the tracks.
The Downing Street communique set out a series of tests before Sinn Fein will be admitted to all-party talks: the IRA must resume the principles in the Mitchell report; and they will have to agree to discuss the Mitchell proposals for decommissioning IRA weapons.
Apart from the key question of the ceasefire itself, none of the other points appears to pose insuperable obstacles for the republicans. The peace formula was agreed by the two Governments in days of hard bargaining, culminating in two late night telephone calls between the two Prime Ministers on Tuesday.
The main parties will begin talks next Monday and end on 13 March. They will be held at the castle buildings at Stormont in Belfast. Sinn Fein will be excluded unless the ceasefire is resumed.
The joint statement said the purpose of the talks will be to reach "widespread agreement on proposals for a broadly acceptable elective process leading directly and without preconditions to all-party negotiations on 10 June".
Elections will be held in Northern Ireland on a date to be agreed to establish a forum, from which the negotiating teams will be appointed.
The intensive round of cross-party talks next week will decide the form of the elections and plans proposed by the nationalist SDLP - backed by the Irish Government - for a referendum on both sides of the Irish border to reinforce the peace process.
Mr Major admitted there were "big gaps" between the main parties over the form the elections would take and the referendum. Those issues will have to be agreed in the intensive talks to begin next week, but Mr Major warned that if no agreement was reached, he would put forward plans and could override objections by imposing proposals with legislation.
Some Tory MPs, including Terry Dicks, expressed their concern that Mr Major had been "bombed" into making concessions by the Docklands bombing. Mr Major and Mr Bruton flatly denied they had been forced to accelerate the peace process by the ending of the ceasefire by the IRA. They said it had slowed the negotiations down.
The Ulster Unionists, led by David Trimble, are fiercely resisting SDLP- DUP plans for elections to be fought on a single constituency for the whole of Ulster. The UUP MPs, who this week voted against the Government on the Scott report, want 18 constituencies.
Mr Trimble and Peter Robinson, the deputy leader of Ian Paisley's Democratic Ulster Party, were united, however, in warning they would not sit down at the negotiating table with Sinn Fein until a permanent ceasefire had been established. Ministerial sources indicated it could be for the other parties to decide whether any ceasefire was credible enough to admit Sinn Fein to the talks.
The onus was now on the paramilitaries, Seamus Mallon, the SDLP deputy leader, said. "This is a moment of truth for all paramilitary terrorist groupings. They have to make a choice - will they join together in making peace or will they isolate themselves?" he said.
With Labour support, Mr Major can get the legislation for the elections through the Commons, but some of his most trusted Tory backbenchers are ready to oppose any plans which do not have the support of Mr Trimble's UUP MPs. "Since the defeat on Scott, we need to build bridges with the UPP. Major will need to be very careful if he wants to get it through the House," another Tory said.Reuse content