Trimble 'ready to talk with Sinn Fein' oveyr 2

Irish peace: Fresh moves to defuse election row
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The Independent Online
COLIN BROWN and

DAVID McKITTRICK

Ulster Unionist leaders have signalled they are ready to remove an obstacle to the peace process, as Irish and British ministers tried to defuse the row over John Major's plan for elections in the Province.

David Trimble, the Ulster Unionist leader, has privately made it clear to ministers that if elections were held, he would be prepared to sit down with Sinn Fein leaders while parallel moves were made to disarm the IRA.

The compromise removes the pre-condition, set out by the British Government in Washinton, that Sinn Fein would be admitted to all-party talks only after a start on decommissioning had taken place.

Mr Trimble has told ministers he has "finessed" the Ulster Unionist conditions for engaging in all party talks, and does not understand the reason for the nationalist rejection of the proposed elections.

John Bruton, the Irish Prime Minister, also tried to take the heat out of the row, which threatened to sour relations between London and Dublin after Dick Spring, the Irish Foreign Secretary, accused Mr Major of trying to "divide and rule".

Mr Bruton said he hoped the meeting on Thursday in London between Mr Spring and Sir Patrick Mayhew, the Northern Ireland Secretary, would "get the peace process back on track from which it should never have been diverted".

The Taoiseach replied to a letter from Mr Major at the weekend urging the Prime Minister to focus on the Mitchell commission conclusions that the IRA would not decommission arms before all-party talks began.

He did not reject the idea of elections in Northern Ireland to appoint the negotiating teams, but he insisted it was premature to make a decision on elections at this stage. Dublin clearly want London to put the elections idea into all-party talks by the end of next month.

British ministers showed no sign of slackening their support for the elections although the nationalists remain hostile.

Mr Major will meet John Hume, leader of the nationalist SDLP, in his Commons room today (TUES) in an attempt to answer Mr Hume's objections.

Officials from the British and Irish Governments also will meet today (TUES) in Dublin to discuss ways of implementing the report by the US Senator George Mitchell for requiring all groups to renounce violence, end punishment attacks and begin all-party talks leading to disarmament.

Senator Mitchell, in Washington, said President Clinton was very anxious that the all-party talks should begin as scheduled by the end of February.

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