Sinn Fein offers new hope of deal in Ulster talks

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The Independent Online

Reports circulating in Belfast last night suggested important new moves had been made at the talks between Sinn Fein and David Trimble's Ulster Unionists at Stormont.

Reports circulating in Belfast last night suggested important new moves had been made at the talks between Sinn Fein and David Trimble's Ulster Unionists at Stormont.

One confirmed report said the republican side had put forward various forms of words that could include a statement from the IRA. This would be intended to provide reassurance to Unionists who have asked for statements confirming that the IRA's campaign of violence is over.

Unionists were said to have turned down one form of words advanced by the republicans, but the talks were continuinglast night and did not appear to be on the point of collapse.

There was no confirmation from within the talks that Sinn Fein or the IRA had made any explicit offer to decommission weapons. Since the Ulster Unionist Party has long stood on the slogan of "No guns, no government" the republican offer would appear to fall short of what Mr Trimble hopes to accomplish in the negotiations.

Earlier yesterday Peter Mandelson declared that Northern Ireland was on the brink of an "unbreakable peace" if Ulster Unionists agreed to join a power-sharing executive. In a clear plea to Mr Trimble, the Northern Ireland Secretary suggested that arms decommissioning "can and will" follow the creation of the devolved body.

Addressing the London annual City luncheon of the Ireland Fund of Great Britain, Mr Mandelson made clear that the setting up of the executive was the key to breaking the log-jam in the peace process.

His optimism came as Mitchel McLaughlin, Sinn Fein's chairman, said he believed that the former US senator George Mitchell was "very close" to making a judgement on the Good Friday Agreement review talks.

Mr Mandelson said that he had been greatly encouraged by the progress of talks over recent weeks, and that he hoped the recent atmosphere of trust between Unionists and republicans should be repeated in an inclusive and locally elected executive.

However, Mr Mandelson stressed that full implementation of the Good Friday Agreement was the only way to achieve a lasting peace and called on all parties to keep their nerve. "The peace process is at a crucial stage. I believe now that we have it within our grasp to map out the series of steps and changes capable of achieving an unbreakable peace," he said.

"We need to remove the log-jam that has stopped the implementation of the agreement for the past 18 months and move ahead on all fronts. To do that, we need to set up the executive on which all sides are represented, as set out in the agreement. When that happens, everything can, and will, follow."

Mr Mandelson also said the agreement could only succeed if the IRA proved that it was "fully committed" to the search for peace. "We can do it, but now is the time to show we can do it," he said. "Peace in Northern Ireland is not going to be made by means of smoke and mirrors or any spin-doctoring device. It is going to be made by local politicians, Unionists, nationalists and republicans."

Mr Mandelson praised Mr Trimble and Gerry Adams, the Sinn Fein president, but warned they must turn hope into reality. "It is the key to Northern Ireland's future. If they blow it, it will instead be a missed opportunity that will threaten the lives of many for a generation."