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Cabinet to stall on IRA talks decision

SENIOR Cabinet ministers will oppose an announcement today that the IRA ceasefire has set the 'clock ticking' for Sinn Fein to be brought into the constitutional talks on the future of Ulster by the end of November.

The Government's response to the ceasefire will be reviewed by the ad-hoc Cabinet committee on Northern Ireland chaired by the Prime Minister. Ministerial sources indicated that the Government was edging forward, but a definitive statement was unlikely after a meeting today of the full Cabinet.

The key decisions will be taken by the Cabinet committee, which today will discuss the lifting of the broadcasting ban on Sinn Fein and the point at which Britain formally declares it has accepted the IRA ceasefire has started, enabling Sinn Fein to enter talks in three months.

Some senior ministers believe it is too soon to start that 'clock ticking', in spite of the signal last week by Douglas Hurd, the Foreign Secretary, that an announcement may be forthcoming. John Major yesterday emphasised the need for caution. 'The IRA were conducting intolerable outrages for 25 years,' he told reporters at Chequers. 'I hope they have given up these outrages for good. They haven't expressly said so.'

Yesterday republican prisoners in the Maze issued a statement committing themselves to 'an unarmed struggle'.

Albert Reynolds, the Irish Prime Minister, said he was 'surprised' at Britain's continued reluctance to accept the two-week-old ceasefire statement.

He said: 'I would be surprised that people cannot take a clear message from today's statement by republican prisoners.

'I don't know if Mr Major has studied it - but it certainly was a positive statement. It makes it very clear that they are committed to the promotion of a peaceful resolution to the conflict in Northern Ireland.'