Sinn Fein is met with softer line on arms

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The Independent Online
The Government made conciliatory noises towards both Unionists and Sinn Fein yesterday, John Major offering reassurances to the former in London while his officials met Sinn Fein in Belfast.

Mr Major was at pains to signal to Unionists that the forthcoming framework document, which the British and Irish governments hope to produce next month, will contain nothing to alarm them. He firmly ruled out any question of British-Irish joint authority over Northern Ireland.

In Belfast, meanwhile, a possible confrontation on the issue of paramilitary arms was averted when Martin McGuinness led a Sinn Fein delegation to the third session of talks with senior government officials.

In recent weeks ministers have been increasing the pressure on republicans on the arms issue, giving the impression that its resolution might be elevated to a pre-condition before the peace process could move on.

In a statement at yesterday's meeting, Mr McGuinness asked: "Is it the British government's position that we cannot move to inclusive peace talks and that consequently the peace process is at an end?"

In the event the Government response was that it was confident that they could make progress across a broad agenda. The Government's opening statement added: "We accept that in practice there is a link between the decommissioning of arms and the political process."

Officials said the Government believed that substantial progress would be necessary before Sinn Fein could be included in dialogue about political arrangements in Northern Ireland. Mr McGuinness's interpretation of this as an indication that the decommissioning of weapons was not a precondition for involvement in all-party talks was later confirmed by the Northern Ireland political affairs minister, Michael Ancram. He added, however, that other parties would not attend talks unless progress had been made on the guns issue.

As the two sides in Belfast agreed to meet in a fortnight's time, Mr Major went out of his way to reassure Unionists that their widely expressed fears on the constitutional joint framework document nearing completion in Dublin and London were groundless.

Mr Major told a press conference in London that there would be no "joint authority" in the recommendations on cross border bodies covering topics such as economic trade, and possibly security policy, and he repeated that the document would in any case bea basis of consultation with all the constitutional parties.

He added: "It goes to a referendum of all the people of Northern Ireland so the fear that there is some sort of deal in which joint authority is in some curious fashion going to be enforced over the people of Northern Ireland against their will is not going to happen and cannot happen."

Mr Major said this meant that the people of Northern Ireland would have a "triple lock" on their future, though he warned that a full conclusion to the peace process would not necessarily be speedy and quoted WB Yeats to say: "Peace come dropping slow."

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