All-party Ulster talks 'two years away'

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The Independent Online
THE START of inclusive round- table negotiations involving the British and Irish governments and Northern Ireland parties is probably two years away, according to the Government's private estimate.

London sources say scaling down the security apparatus and easing Sinn Fein into the political process will be so long and painstaking that full negotiations are not expected before the autumn of 1996. This working assumption is not likely to find favour with the Irish government and other parties.

Albert Reynolds, the Irish Prime Minister, has often spoken of his desire to move forward speedily. The Irish government has already moved faster than London, with Mr Reynolds shaking hands with Gerry Adams to mark Sinn Fein's entry into the political fold.

Dick Spring, the Irish foreign minister, has also wasted no time in meeting President Clinton and European leaders to stitch together support for the peace process. London's estimate of the pace will not suit Washington, which is apparently pressing for swift progress.

A senior British source said: 'If we play our cards carefully and do not let either the republican side or the loyalist side get completely disillusioned, then we're into a proper negotiated peace. But there are minefields all over the place.'

Official sources concede that John Major and Sir Patrick Mayhew, the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, are concerned not to alienate right-wing Tory backbenchers and James Molyneaux's Ulster Unionist Party in the delicate manoeuvrings ahead.

The Government's time-scale will chime with Mr Molyneaux's view that movement should take place slowly. This pace has already led to some friction with the Irish government, which has shown irritation and impatience with London's responses to the IRA ceasefire. Mr Reynolds has said he hopes to have his Forum for Peace and Reconciliation up and running before the end of next month.

British government sources say they expect considerable activity from the forum in the form of bilateral meetings in the coming months. A 'framework document' being drawn up by London and Dublin and due for publication later this year will give indications of the thinking of the two governments. London foresees a two-stage process, with the establishment of permanent peace and then political talks to hammer out a settlement.

The assessment that political negotiations are two years away may help explain why the Prime Minister dealt so brusquely with the Rev Ian Paisley at their Downing Street meeting last week, since after that encounter the leader of the Democratic Unionist Party could hardly be expected to return to talks soon.

Ministers are also studying the implications of an end to violence in the economic and security fields. More than 30,000 people are involved in security jobs, including soldiers, police, prison officers, and the local Royal Irish Regiment.

Labour was yesterday urged to allow people in Northern Ireland to join the party and organise. The move, a sign of the pressure for rapid change in the province in the wake of the IRA ceasefire, came from Democracy Now, a grouping backed by 50 Labour MPs.

Support comes from both the left and right of the party and from Lord Fitt and Paddy Devlin, two of the founders of the SDLP - Labour's sister socialist party in Northern Ireland.