Sinn Fein says no to 1 April accord

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PRELIMINARY skirmishing in the resumed Northern Ireland political talks yesterday saw Sinn Fein at odds with Mo Mowlam at the outset of what is shaping up as a lengthy and gruelling negotiation.

The Secretary of State for Northern Ireland presented the Hillsborough Castle draft declaration of 1 April as "the best guess" of Tony Blair and the Irish Prime Minister, Bertie Ahern, on how agreement could be reached on the arms decommissioning issue. But the Sinn Fein chairman, Mitchel McLaughlin, said his party was formally rejecting the draft declaration, which calls for some arms to be put "beyond use" as part of the procedure of setting up a new Northern Ireland government.

The Sinn Fein approach yesterday was to hark back to last year's Good Friday Agreement, which makes no such unambiguous statement about de-commissioning. The Ulster Unionist position is that the draft declaration represents a significant improvement on the Agreement.

Sinn Fein's president, Gerry Adams, declared: "What the declaration does is make the transfer of power to the institutions conditional upon the delivery of IRA weapons. Sinn Fein has been consistent privately and publicly in saying we cannot deliver on that precondition."

The Irish government signalled that it favoured negotiations continuing on the basis of the declaration. Liz O'Donnell, a junior foreign minister, said: "It was the two governments' best effort to point a way to where we might find an accommodation in terms of timing and sequencing for some act of disarmament, which would meet both sides' requirements - without humiliation. It is not a final document, it is something we can work on."

While the document had only draft status and is clearly open to amendment during the present talks, it seems most unlikely that either government, and certainly not the Ulster Unionists, will move away from the principle that some guns must be put beyond use. It may take some time, however, to establish whether the republican "no" means "no", or whether Sinn Fein and the IRA might be open to some move that could be presented as voluntary on the IRA's part.

During yesterday's series of round-table and bilateral meetings, Mr Adams had a 45-minute encounter with the Ulster Unionist leader, David Trimble. The talks are to continue today, with the possibility that Mr Blair and Mr Ahern could join them later in the week if progress seems likely.

t Sinn Fein complained yesterday about the arrest of four men in South Armagh, apparently for questioning about the murder in January of the IRA critic Eamon Collins, who was found battered to death near his home in Newry. A representative described the arrests as "blatantly provocative harassment".

t The four men in the IRA's Balcombe Street gang - whose release from jail after 24 years was approved by the Irish government last week - were freed from the high-security Portlaoise jail last night. Hugh Doherty, Eddie Butler, Harry Duggan and Martin O'Connell were given multiple life sentences for a British bombing campaign in the 1970s. They had returned to jail earlier this week, after parole, to complete formalities.