Sinn Fein gets a place at peace talks table

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A vital piece of the Northern Ireland peace process jigsaw is to be slotted into place today when the Government confirms that six weeks of IRA ceasefire have qualified Sinn Fein for a place at the talks table.

The development, though widely expected, is none the less historic in that it represents the first time a British government has invited the republican movement to take part in round-table talks.

Following today's move the Government's next important objective will be to coax Unionists to join the republicans, the British and Irish governments and the various other parties at the talks which are due to open on 15 September.

For this reason Mo Mowlam, the Northern Ireland Secretary, can be expected to do what she can, when she announces the decision this morning, to encourage Ulster Unionist leader David Trimble to participate fully in the talks process.

Mr Trimble continued to reserve his position on this point after meeting Tony Blair at Downing Street yesterday. The Unionist leader would only say: "We will see what the position is, as and when that comes."

He was, however, markedly more sceptical and suspicious about the bona fides of the republicans than the Government, remarking: "At present Sinn Fein have not established a commitment to exclusively peaceful means. If you are committed to exclusively peaceful means, you are going to abide by the views of the people and not try and change it by violence."

Downing Street said the meeting between Mr Blair and Mr Trimble had been constructive and positive, a spokesman adding: "We are still working towards finding the mechanisms for inclusive talks. [The Unionists] argued strongly that confidence building was a two-way process and we will be taking into account their concerns."

Mr Trimble said that the arrangements for a new arms decommissioning body, agreed earlier this week by Dublin and London, had been inadequate. He added that this issue had to be resolved within the talks process before there could be any question of moving to substantive issues.

Mr Trimble is due to meet leaders of the Roman Catholic Church within the next few days as part of a consultative process undertaken by his party before any decision is taken on whether to enter the talks.

Reports from Dublin of a significant IRA arms find earlier this month did nothing to alleviate Unionist suspicions concerning republican bona fides. A search by Gardai two weeks ago uncovered a large amount of material including time- power units for up to 400 bombs together with a radio-controlled device which, it was said, might be used to steer driverless vehicles into security force installations.

The arms were found in the attic of a farmhouse in Co Cavan. A Garda spokesman said they appeared to have been in the attic since before the latest IRA ceasefire declared on 20 July. A man was questioned and released.