Chief Political Correspondent
Dick Spring, the Irish Foreign Minister, last night urged the British Government to accept a fresh formula for breaking the impasse over the decommissioning of IRA weapons, which has stalled the Northern Ireland peace process.
As the British and Irish governments sought to revive the Northern Ireland peace process, Mr Spring warned the stalemate over decommissioning IRA weapons was "profoundly dangerous" .
He urged the British Government to drop its "unrealistic" demands on decommissioning in favour of setting total disarmament as a priority to be achieved through the negotiating process.
"A firm undertaking on this issue could provide valuable reassurance, establishing clearly that a satisfactory resolution of the arms issue was an attainable goal, and an essential component of agreement.
"That would make it an added incentive to talks, rather than a road-block or delaying tactic," Mr Spring said in Cambridge. He said it could be "endorsed and monitored by a trustworthy and authoritative outside source" - a reference to the idea of an international commission to oversee the decommissioning of IRA weapons, which Sinn Fein is against.
John Major said yesterday that the impasse was a set-back, not a crisis, but Mr Spring's remarks underline the concern of the Irish government at the British insistence that the IRA should make progress on decommissioning their weapons before Sinn Fein join all-party talks.
British Government sources told the Independent that officials from both sides would meet next week for the first time since John Bruton, the Irish Prime Minister, called off his summit with Mr Major because of the weapons issue.
The Spring formula will be treated sceptically in London as little more than a reworking of the Sinn Fein demand that they join the all-party talks before any progress has been made in disarming the IRA. Mr Major refused to soften his line on IRA arms decommissioning, stressing that all-party talks could not go ahead until the gun had been taken out of Ulster politics.
Mr Spring's comments came hours after the Irish Prime Minister put pressure on Sinn Fein to think again about accepting the idea of the international commission by warning that he would be prepared to make a deal with London on methods of decommissioning terrorist weapons even without the agreement of Gerry Adams, Sinn Fein president, or the IRA.
Addressing the British-Irish Association conference, Mr Spring bluntly warned that the prolonged stalemate could threaten a return to violence.
"I know of no one with a trustworthy knowledge of the paramilitaries on the republican side who would say with confidence their leadership could agree and begin the process of decommissioning as an imposed precondition for political talks, without destabilising the present cessation of violence, perhaps fatally," he said.