Talks stumble on problem of IRA arms

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The British and Irish governments will meet again early next week in an effort to close what is still a serious gap between them over how to handle the crucial issue of IRA arms decommissioning in the all-party talks planned for 10 June.

Officials are to resume talks after a ministerial meeting failed to resolve outstanding differences - including over the role of US Senator George Mitchell in the talks and whether he should have a wider remit than purely on the decommissioning of arms.

Earlier David Trimble, leader of the Ulster Unionist Party, had staked out his ground with a warning that he could yet be prepared to see the Government fall.

The UUP leader said that John Major's Government "need not look to us for support" if it started to backslide on the key issue of requiring IRA weapons to be decommissioned as the talks progressed.

Pressed on what was the main stumbling block between the two governments, Sir Patrick Mayhew, the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, implied it was the crucial question of whether some arms decommissioning should take place during the talks, as the Mitchell report suggested, or whether it should be after the talks process was completed, as Dublin had originally insisted.

Sir Patrick emphasised that Britain had already compromised on its previous insistence that some decommissioning should take place before the talks, and added that there had been differences over whether some decommissioning should begin "during the course of the talks or perhaps at the end or thereafter".

That interpretation was quickly contested by Irish sources who were insistent that both sides were agreed on the Mitchell report's proposal that some decommissioning should take place during talks. At issue instead was Dublin's desire to ensure that talks did not get bogged down by the arms issue to the exclusion of all other topics.

There appeared last night to be agreement that with the talks broken into three "strands" - internal political arrangements for Northern Ireland, cross-border "North-South" issues, and "East-West" Anglo-Irish relationships - decommissioning should be dealt with by a sub-committee of the second strand.

But sources close to yesterday's meeting said that the British had been pressing for Senator Mitchell's role to be confined to chairing the sub- committee on decommissioning while the Irish would like him to have a wider political role as well as chairman of all the "North-South" talks.

Both Sir Patrick and Dick Spring, the Irish Foreign Minister, stressed that the meeting had been - in Sir Patrick's words - "hard-working, productive and friendly".