Major's hope of Irish peace summit falters

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Indy Politics

Political Editor

John Major and John Bruton, the Irish Prime Minister, last night failed to clear the final obstacles threatening tentative plans for an Anglo- Irish summit on Friday to inject fresh momentum into the Northern Ireland peace process.

The two prime ministers sought last night in a 45-minute telephone call to reach advance agreement which could pave the way to a successful summit before President Bill Clinton's long-heralded visit to Northern Ireland next week. But although they agreed to speak again within 48 hours, the outcome of their conversation left hopes of a Friday summit hanging in the balance.

Mr Bruton has been under pressure to accept that the British government's insistence that the IRA should actively begin the process of surrendering arms before all-party talks, should not be allowed to halt the momentum of the peace process any longer.

The official acknowledgement in London and Dublin that "roadblocks" still existed, dented hopes of agreement by the end of the week on a preliminary "twin-track" approach to talks-intended to lead in turn to full round table discussions between all the parties as early as next February.

Under this programme the two governments have been seeking first to agree an international commission - almost certain to be chaired by George Mitchell, a leading US Democrat - would examine decommissioning issues, while the two governments would begin separate bilateral talks on a political settlement with each of the Northern Ireland parties.

The governments are still divided over Britain's requirement for the IRA to begin decommissioning arms before all-party talks begin. London has continued to reject suggestions by Dublin, which follow intensive and continuing consultations with Sinn Fein and John Hume, leader of the Social Democratic and Labour Party, that as a compromise the requirement should be considered as part of the international commission's remit.

At the same time, London is also resisting republican suggestions that the surrender of arms by former terrorists should be considered in parallel with the disarming of the British security forces in Northern Ireland. While the Government accepts that there can be no prohibition on Sinn Fein raising such an idea with the commission, there is no question of London accepting direct linkage between the two issues.

The British pre-condition of all-party talks was firmly restated by Mr Major in the Commons yesterday when he was asked by David Trimble, leader of the Ulster Unionists, "to confirm that it is and will continue to be the policy of this government that, before Sinn Fein-IRA can move fully into dialogue, they must establish their commitment to exclusively peaceful methods by beginning a credible process of actual decommissioning".

Mr Major said that the requirement - known as the Washington III condition - was still in force. "That remains the Government's position."