Chief Political Correspondent
The Government mounted a fresh attempt to encourage Sinn Fein to enter the peace process talks by promising the most fundamental review of the Royal Ulster Constabulary so far carried out.
Coming days after the early release of more than 80 IRA and loyalist paramilitaries, it was seen as another confidence-building measure to get Sinn Fein to compromise over the refusal of the IRA to move on the decommissioning of its weapons.
Disarming the IRA last night threatened to produce fresh troubles in the attempts by the Irish and British governments to revive the peace process.
The Irish government was unhappy with the letter sent to John Bruton, the Irish Prime Minister, by John Major setting out plans for a twin-track strategy involving the creation of an international commission to oversee decommissioning, and preparatory talks with the parties, leading to possible all-party talks by next February.
Mr Major is sticking to the requirement set out by Sir Patrick Mayhew, Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, in Washington for progress to be made on decommissioning before Sinn Fein can enter the all-party talks. But Mr Bruton is supporting the nationalists in asking for that pre-condition, known as "Washington Three", to be considered by the international commission.
Last night, Downing Street made it clear the Irish request was unacceptable. Mr Bruton will be seeking to resolve the difficulty on the telephone with Mr Major today, but it could delay the hopes of an early summit between them until after the visit by Bill Clinton, the US President, on 28 November.
The British are keen for an early summit meeting, but the Irish - having aborted a summit in September - want to reach agreement behind the scenes on the decommissioning issue before a high-profile meeting between the two leaders.
"The thinking in Irish circles is that we want a formula that can get us over this problem. If the remit doesn't include Washington Three, there is a danger that we will have to come back to this problem at a later date," said one Irish source.
"There are things that will be difficult for everyone but it can be overcome with courage an imagination. We are prepared to do that," a senior government source said.
The prospects for agreement may have been enhanced by the announcement of the review of the RUC. A White Paper on the relationships between the Secretary of State, police authority and the RUC Chief Constable will also be published before Christmas.
Sinn Fein has been demanding radical reforms to the RUC, including the change of its name, to drop "Royal" from its title. Officials at the Northern Ireland Office are hoping to have the policing review completed by next summer.
The security minister, Sir John Wheeler, said the aim of the White Paper and the review was to strengthen the police service as the demands changed to a peacetime scenario and to make it acceptable to the community it serves.
Sir John added: "No area will be excluded. It will be pretty dramatic stuff."