Ministers to begin talks with Sinn Fein

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Ministers are poised to open exploratory talks with Sinn Fein leaders to answer criticism that the Government is dragging its heels over the peace process in Northern Ireland, writes Colin Brown.

The Government appears to have accepted a compromise over its demand that Sinn Fein could only enter the exploratory talks if it was prepared to discuss the decommissioning of IRA weapons without linking it to the removal of British troops from Northern Ireland.

A senior ministerial source said it was clear that Sinn Fein would not give an unambiguous commitment but Michael Ancram, Northern Ireland minister, was likely to meet the Sinn Fein team, led by Martin McGuinness, probably next week.

"When Michael Ancram gets into the room with Sinn Fein, he will make it absolutely clear they cannot expect to go on to the substantive talks unless they make progress on decommissioning," said the source.

The Cabinet agreed in principle to open the exploratory talks in early March, but has been holding back from allowing Mr Ancram to meet Sinn Fein because of its refusal to give the unambiguous commitment to discuss handing over weapons, which was given by the Loyalist paramilitaries.

An exchange of letters this week between Government officials and Sinn Fein failed to significantly alter the impasse between the two sides. Republican sources warned that the British intransigence could delay progress for months.

Sources in Belfast said there was a possibility that the talks could take place next week, but there was little change in the position of the two sides.