The road to Ulster peace: Sinn Fein talks were key to renewed peace

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The Independent Online
On her appointment to Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, Mo Mowlam mounted a charm offensive in Ulster, where the people of both communities found it refreshing to have a warm-hearted woman, with a hands- on approach, instead of the aloof image of her pin-striped predecessor, Sir Patrick Mayhew.

But it was clear that the essentials in Northern Ireland policy were driven from Downing Street. Within 17 days of winning power, Tony Blair took the initiative to break the deadlock in the stalled Ulster peace process inherited from John Major.

The Prime Minister offered talks between government officials and Sinn Fein before a new IRA ceasefire - ending the ban imposed by his predecessor.

Mr Blair went to Northern Ireland on 16 May to give Sinn Fein a last- chance offer. Greeted by cheering crowds, the Prime Minister said: "My message to Sinn Fein is clear. The settlement train is leaving. I want you on that train. But it is leaving anyway, and I will not allow it to wait for you."

He coupled his message with an assurance to the Unionists at a press conference that he did not believe there would be a united Ireland in his lifetime, nor in the lifetime of the youngest person in the room.

Mr Blair also benefited from a better relationship with President Bill Clinton than John Major enjoyed. The pressure from the Whitehouse on Sinn Fein may have proved crucial in bringing about the ceasefire.

The turning point came with the IRA killing of two policemen in Lurgan on 16 June. Mr Blair used a poignant letter from a little girl to hammer home to Americans the desire for peace, when he met President Clinton at the Denver G-7 summit on 22 June. Mr Blair said he had a letter from Margaret Gibney, 12, saying "Do what you can - I have only had one year of peace in my life".

On 25 June, Mr Blair made his statement to the Commons setting out the terms for allowing Sinn Fein into the cross-party talks after a renewed ceasefire. For the first time, the Prime Minister set out a clear timetable that was not open-ended. It was intended to put pressure on Sinn Fein, who would no longer have an open-ended delay before they could be brought into the talks. Mr Blair gave them an assurance that they could be brought in within six weeks of a ceasefire.

Two meetings between officials and Sinn Fein were cancelled by Mr Blair after the Lurgan killings, but the contacts continued, as The Independent disclosed. Sinn Fein asked for clarification of the two governments' joint statement, and exchanged letters with the Northern Ireland office. Ms Mowlam also took two telephone calls from Sinn Fein.

Ms Mowlam had been subject to rumours about being out of favour with Number Ten, prompted by the extreme reaction to a decision to allow the Orangemen to march. But Mr Blair made it clear she had his fullest confidence. Last night's announcements will have justified Mr Blair in his faith.