The first publicly-acknowledged meeting between a British Cabinet minister and the leadership of Sinn Fein, the political wing of the IRA will take place in Washington next week.
Sir Patrick Mayhew, Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, invited Sinn Fein's president, Gerry Adams, to meet him at a White House conference on trade and investment in Ireland. Sinn Fein speedily accepted the invitation, for which its officials have been pressing. It is likely to take place on Wednesday.
It will be welcomed by the Irish and United States governments who both favour an injection of momentum into the peace process. It also marks another incremental, yet important, step in the gradual thawing of relations between the Government and Sinn Fein.
Mr Adams has in the past been interned without trial, jailed and excluded from Britain on security grounds. John Major once told the Commons that the idea of talking to him "turns my stomach".
But since last August's IRA ceasefire lines of communication between the republicans and the Northern Ireland Office have been steadily strengthened. In the first instance, a Sinn Fein team held a series of meetings with British officials, then last week a junior minister, Michael Ancram, took part in the talks for the first time.
Earlier this month, the Prime Minister was set to shake hands with Sinn Fein's chairman, Mitchel McLaughlin, but disturbances in Londonderry prevented this taking place. This week, however, Mr McLaughlin shook hands with another junior minister, Malcolm Moss. Sinn Fein and government officials speak on the telephone daily. Both Sir Patrick Mayhew and Mr Adams are due to attend the Washington conference, which will have a high media profile. It has been generally understood that a refusal by Sir Patrick to meet the Sinn Fein leader would overshadow the conference.
Announcing his invitation to Mr Adams yesterday, Sir Patrick stressed that he would be placing heavy emphasis on the question of the de-commissioning of paramilitary arms. He said he would be explaining that public confidence in the permanence of peace required substantial progress on de-commissioning.
Although the meeting is undoubtedly perceived as an advance for Sinn Fein, the Government is making it clear that it continues to resist the republican demand to be treated on exactly the same basis as other parties in Northern Ireland.
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