PMs fail to break Irish deadlock

Arms impasse awaits Clinton
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A last-ditch attempt to revive the Northern Ireland peace process before Bill Clinton's visit collapsed last night after a 45-minute telephone call between John Major and the Irish Prime Minister, John Bruton, failed to break the deadlock.

The main sticking point that has halted the progress to all-party talks on the future of Northern Ireland is Britain's demand that the IRA begin to decommission its weapons straight away.

The two governments tried to sound optimistic, but relations have reached a new low as a result of the impasse. "The talks have not broken down but it is a long game, and we have to take out some of the fudge," a senior Government source said.

At one stage, Dublin and London appeared to be engaged in a private slanging match over the stalled peace process. "They are dumping on us, to put the blame on Dublin," another Irish source said. Dublin last night sought to repair the damage by putting a brave face on the failure to reach agreement. "They tried a few tricks on Saturday night, but we have got them back on track to treating our ideas seriously again," one source said.

The visit of the US President carries all the potential risks of a diplomatic high-wire act in Belfast. Mr Clinton is expected to meet Gerry Adams, the Sinn Fein president, during his Ulster tour. But Mr Major will stay in London, avoiding the embarrassment of meeting the Sinn Fein leader.

In spite of hours of talks in recent days, no way has been found round the British demand that the IRA should begin decommissioning weapons before Sinn Fein can be admitted to the all-party talks.

British ministers fear Mr Clinton may call for all parties to resolve their differences around the table, putting pressure on Britain to drop its precondition for all-party talks. Mr Major's officials said they were confident the President backed Britain's position.

Bruce Morrison, a prominent member of the Irish-American lobby who is expected to be on the President's team, said Mr Clinton had no plans "up his sleeve", but he added the British government "should be more open- minded".

Mr Morrison said he was "disappointed" by the lack of progress and pointed the finger of blame at London. "Frankly, I think all the parties have done some moving except for the British government, which seems to be about in the same place as it was five or six months ago," he told Channel 4.

Mr Major and Mr Clinton will have two hours of talks, before a press conference in Downing Street tomorrow.

On Thursday, the President will go to Belfast and he will visit the Republic of Ireland on Friday. Irish sources were annoyed by accusations in London that they had bowed to IRA-Sinn Fein pressure to treat the IRA weapons on an equal footing as those of the security forces.

Last night's talks followed a fraught diplomatic timetable: on Friday, Mr Major and Mr Bruton had lengthy talks on the telephone; the Cabinet Secretary, Sir Robin Butler, and his Irish counterpart, Paddy Teahon, made progress; Irish officials including Sean O'hUiginn, head of the Anglo- Irish division of the foreign department arrived for talks. However, the British complain that the Irish "backtracked". On Sunday, Mr Bruton sent Mr Major a detailed letter putting forward a fresh formula for agreement on the IRA weapons issue.

The Bruton proposals were:

n The need for the British government to consider, without commitment, alternative plans for building confidence to those outlined in the "Washington 3" plan, which insists on the decommissioning of IRA arms before Sinn Fein joins all-party talks.

n Acceptance of the need to draw a firm distinction between the arms of the security forces and paramilitaries.

n Giving planned exploratory talks between the parties real meaning, a move which is designed to reassure Sinn Fein that the proposed twin- track strategy should definitely lead to all-party talks.