Summit hopes for peace breakthrough

Northern Ireland: Nationalists see meeting between Major and Bruton as 'defining moment' in moves towards agreement; Talks ease fears over return to violence.
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A summit meeting planned for early next month by John Major and the Irish Taoiseach, John Bruton, is shaping up to be a defining moment in the Ulster peace process, according to Irish nationalist sources.

The hopes for the summit suggest the process appears to be back on an even keel after a period of impending crisis caused by a republican perception of British immobility.

The long-lasting deadlock on the question of decommissioning IRA weaponry increased fears in the republican community, which is eternally distrustful of British motives, that some elements within the Government were intent on splitting Sinn Fein and the IRA.

This theory holds that some in London would secretly welcome a collapse of the peace process and a return to violence, believing this could be followed by a security clampdown which would defeat the IRA.

Such republican suspicions have been partly allayed by the fact that in recent weeks the Government took a series of steps which are interpreted as designed to ease the strains on the Sinn Fein leadership.

One such move was the transfer of a number of republican prisoners from Britain to Northern Ireland, which reduced internal tensions and helped avert potential escalation in prison protests. Another was the initiative by the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, Sir Patrick Mayhew, who opened private contacts with the Sinn Fein president, Gerry Adams.

Next month's planned summit should indicate whether the Government intends to slow the pace again or attempt to maintain more momentum into the process. Official sources have signalled an increase in remission for prisoners from one-third to one-half. Such a move could step up pressure on the republicans in the arms de-commissioning debate, though Sinn Fein has already complained it would have a limited practical effect in releasing prisoners.

In advance of the summit two committees of British and Irish officials are examining the questions of de-commissioning and of how to proceed in political talks. The first is considering how some form of commission might approach the disposal of arms, while the second is discussing a new round of talks which would deal with the agenda for future negotiations.

One striking feature of political discourse in Northern Ireland at the moment is the particularly high level of criticism being levelled at the Government for its alleged lack of political skill. Observers from across the political spectrum endorse the view of the Irish Times that "there is drift and bumbledom, in which moments of expectation are followed by more unexplained delays". The Government's approach has given the peace process a stop-go character.

Reliable government sources confirm that significant ministerial and inter-departmental differences of opinion exist on the handling of the process, and there are internal as well as external complaints of indecision and delay, notably at Downing Street. There is a belief in many quarters that Mr Major himself would prefer to set a faster pace but has been inhibited by objections from Cabinet colleagues and from right-wing backbenchers.

The Conservative leadership contest is viewed as having lessened Mr Major's immediate problems, but he is still widely regarded as a prime minister in a weak parliamentary position whose room for manoeuvre is limited.

Some on both the Unionist and nationalist sides are saying little may happen before the next general election.

The Home Office in particular is said to favour a slower pace not primarily because of the peace process itself, but because of ministerial fears of "read-across", in which concessions made in Northern Ireland would then be demanded by prisoners in Britain.

This led to delays in the transfer of republican prisoners to Northern Ireland and to administrative changes which, according to the Irish Foreign Minister, Dick Spring, have meant a more restrictive regime since the ceasefire.

Since the reshuffle, two ministers, Michael Heseltine and Michael Portillo, have been added to the Cabinet committee which oversees Northern Ireland.

Next month's summit should show if ministers are intent on a hard line or a more flexible approach.