Top loyalist to see Sinn Fein talks caks r Trimble Top loyalist ready to talk to Sinn Fein to

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REPUBLICANISM and Unionism inched yet closer to face-to-face encounters yesterday when David Ervine, leader of the Progressive Unionist Party, made clear he was prepared to meet Sinn Fein in the new Belfast assembly.

His statement was the latest in a series of political manoeuvres towards direct contacts between representatives of the two traditions. Although there have been many meetings on a round-table basis, most Unionist groupings have yet formally to sit down with Sinn Fein.

Another important step takes place on Monday when the Ulster Unionist leader, David Trimble, in his capacity as the assembly's First Minister designate, hosts talks involving all parties. This is expected to produce the first direct engagement between Mr Trimble and the Sinn Fein president, Gerry Adams.

Although the two men have often been in the same room they have not addressed each other directly. There is an expectation, at some stage soon, that Mr Trimble will meet each of the assembly party leaders individually.

The prospect of such meetings has sent frissons through some sections of Mr Trimble's assembly party, which contains individuals who are opposed to talks and, in particular, are against any prospect of Sinn Fein joining a new governing executive without the IRA decommissioning arms.

One backbencher, Peter Weir, has said that Sinn Fein should not be allowed into an executive without the total de-commissioning of weapons and disbandment of the IRA.

In spite of such pressure from the Unionist ranks, the general expectation is that contacts between republicanism and Unionism are now inevitable, especially in the light of what are viewed as concessions from Sinn Fein over the past week.

Mr Ervine's contribution yesterday is seen as adding to the air of inevitability. He said of the new assembly: "Northern Ireland will have its parliament.

"In order that that parliament works effectively, there needs to be interaction among all the people within it. We'll talk to those who will talk to us on the basis of need for the delivery of services to the people of Northern Ireland."

Although his Progressive Unionist Party - which has close links with loyalist paramilitaries - is separate from Mr Trimble's Ulster Unionists, Mr Ervine has been an important supporter of the trend towards a more flexible Unionist line. The two members of his party could be arithmetically important within the assembly in the event of defections from the Trimble camp.

Those opposed to Mr Trimble appear to be tactically refraining from making a major fuss on the issue of talks with republicans.

Instead they seem to be keeping their counsel so that they can make a more determined stand against Sinn Fein's entry to the executive.