Ministers look to the future

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British and Irish ministers are to meet in London today for the final stages of negotiation on the joint framework document that will sketch out their ideas on a political settlement for Northern Ireland.

The aim is to craft a document that will maintain the momentum of the peace process while at the same time laying out suggestions for far-reaching political talks which, it is hoped, will involve the two governments and all the Northern Ireland parties.

The talks today will feature the Northern Ireland Secretary, Sir Patrick Mayhew, and the Irish foreign minister Dick Spring. The signs are that the document could be ready for launch in about a month's time.

Both governments are aware of the need to produce a document that will not alienate either Ulster Unionists or Sinn Fein, and which will not put at risk the IRA and loyalist paramilitary ceasefires.

John Major has said that the document will not be a blueprint, describing it instead as "representing our joint understanding of what is most likely to secure widespread acceptance".

He has also repeatedly denied that it will represent any form of joint authority over Northern Ireland. It is, however, expected to envisage new cross-border institutions which will relate to Westminster, the Dail in Dublin, and a new assembly in Belfast. Ministers have indicated that the cross-border institutions are to have executive powers.

The two governments anticipate an eventual far-reaching settlement which will be put for approval to voters in both Northern Ireland and the Republic by referendum.

The envisaged new settlement will involve the amendment of Articles 2 and 3 of the Irish constitution - which Unionists say they find offensive - and probably changes to the Westminster Government of Ireland Act of 1920.

The final package is expected to include the new assembly, the cross-border institutions, and probably a new Bill of Rights. It will supersede the Anglo-Irish agreement of 1985 and other previous provisions.