Exclusion order on Adams to be lifted before talks

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THE Government is prepared to lift the exclusion order against Gerry Adams, the Sinn Fein president soon, allowing him to travel to mainland Britain, ministers said last night.

The Home Secretary, Michael Howard, has made it clear to colleagues he has no objection to the ban being lifted. Another senior minister said: 'It will make little difference. We can lift it without any difficulty.'

The Government hinted strongly last night that there would be no dramatic gestures to Sinn Fein today after the meeting of the Northern Ireland committee of the Cabinet to take stock of progress after the IRA and loyalist paramilitary ceasefires.

The next steps could come next week, when the Commons debates Northern Ireland. Mr Howard and Northern Ireland ministers are urging caution on the Government. They want to delay until shortly before Sinn Fein enters talks with government officials.

Those talks, under the Downing Street Declaration, will thrash out difficult issues, including the surrender of Semtex and possibly IRA arms caches, before Sinn Fein is admitted to the talks proper with other parties.

The Government is expected today to open the way to talks between officials and Sinn Fein leaders by accepting the 'working assumption' that the IRA ceasefire is permanent.

The decision to bring Sinn Fein into the talks process on the future of Ulster will be taken when the Northern Ireland Committee of the Cabinet. Sir Patrick Mayhew, the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, who has been keen to make progress, will give a definitive response in a Commons debate on Ulster on 26 October. It is expected that he will start the clock ticking for Sinn Fein's entry to the talks.

John Major and Albert Reynolds, the Irish Prime Minister, are expected to hold a summit within the next fortnight to endorse the joint framework document setting out the broad package of proposals for discussion.