Spring fails to close the gap

Click to follow
The Independent Online
It will go down as the summit that did not happen - twice. Twelve days ago the Irish foreign minister, Dick Spring, suggested the gap between Dublin and London over arms decommissioning was too wide to breach by a planned summit on 6 September.

Next day Dublin ministers met Sinn Fein attempting to break the talks\arms log-jam. The republicans made it clear no IRA weapons hand over was possible at this time.

Dublin responded, expressing alarm at Sinn Fein's strategy of raising tension in street protests. Gerry Adams and Martin McGuinness pledged a "total and absolute commitment to democratic and peaceful methods of resolving political problems", which led Dublin to make all-party talks an urgent priority.

In the next 24 hours intensive "summit salvage" efforts were mounted by the Irish Northern Ireland liaison group. By the middle of last week it had evolved what they hoped was a the basis of a compromise.

In phone calls John Major and Mr Bruton agreed the anticipated Sinn Fein acceptance of an arms decommissioning body (publicly hinted at five days earlier by its chairman, Mitchell McLaughlin) could be taken by Britain as the "good faith" commitment it required, fulfilling the "tangible progress towards decommissioning".

Further hopes were built in Dublin on the agreement to hold a summit at Chequers. The Irish believed this meant London was ready to ease through a redefinition of terms for opening talks with minimum loss of face.

Late on Friday a second IRA statement hardened its earlier ceasefire anniversary communique, insisting no arms would be given up.

Over last weekend diplomatic contacts continued. Only now did Sinn Fein see the compromise they were expected to sign up to.

The impending crisis was nowhere to be seen on Monday as Irish diplomats blithely predicted Monday's Dublin's pre-summit talks with the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, Sir Patrick Mayhew, would be over in an hour.

Mr Spring and Sir Patrick emerged unable to announce any all-party talks timetable. To its dismay, Dublin found the British arms stumbling block was still there. Extra salt was rubbed into the wound as Sir Patrick's decommissioning stance was endorsed in Dublin by Labour leader, Tony Blair.

Amid escalating public alarm, a protracted half-hour phone between the two premiers, hitherto close collaborators, failed to breach the arms barrier. Mindful of Mr Spring's earlier warning that a summit that only highlighted divisions would be a disaster, the Irish called off the whole thing.