Mowlam moves to reassure Unionists

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Indy Politics
The Government last night tried to rescue the Northern Ireland talks from the brink of collapse by publishing a letter from Northern Ireland Secretary Mo Mowlam to the Sinn Fein negotiator Martin McGuinness. It followed warnings by David Trimble, the Ulster Unionist leader, at a meeting with Tony Blair that the talks would founder next week unless the Government guaranteed there would be decommissioning of IRA weapons if Sinn Fein was admitted to the talks.

The Government sought to answer Unionist protests about the contacts with Sinn Fein - which led to the Unionist walk-out from the talks on Wednesday - by publishing the letter from the Northern Ireland Office. It reaffirmed that the Government was standing by the Mitchell principles, including the decommissioning of weapons during the cross-party talks. However, the letter was read in Ulster as confirmation that it would be difficult to expel Sinn Fein once the talks were under way.

The letter, dated 9 July, was in response to questions raised by Sinn Fein in relation to earlier documents. Ms Mowlam said it had been sent to prevent any doubt or uncertainty but she would not be drawn into open- ended exchanges with Sinn Fein as a stalling tactic. The letter stated that decommissioning was one, but by no means the only, critical issue which needed to be resolved satisfactorily.

The British and Irish governments shared the view that "voluntary and mutual decommissioning can be achieved only in the context of progress in comprehensive and inclusive political dialogue". The letter said that as far as decommissioning was concerned, "provided that all participants are acting on the basis of the implementation of all aspects of the Mitchell Report, in good faith, progress should be possible". If a party "demonstrably dishonours its commitment" to the six Mitchell principles of democracy and non-violence, it was "no longer entitled to participate" in the talks process.

That was the only ground for exclusion and would be decided on by the governments alone, not any of the political parties. Last night Ms Mowlam said the letter had been sent to ensure "no genuine doubt or uncertainty exists which could act as a block to a unequivocal IRA ceasefire and inclusive negotiations". But she said she would not negotiate a ceasefire. There had been clarification but no negotiations with Sinn Fein.

"I have no intention of allowing the Government to be drawn into open- ended exchanges with Sinn Fein as a stalling tactic and would be surprised if any new and significant points of clarification were now to emerge." However, if they did emerge, from any party, she would be prepared to look at them.

Earlier, Mr Blair failed to remove the latest logjam in the cross-party talks on Northern Ireland after a crisis meeting at Downing Street with Mr Trimble. The Prime Minister agreed to meet the Ulster Unionists again next week to try to overcome the Unionists' anxieties about the decommissioning of terrorist weapons.

Mr Trimble emerged from a one-and-a-quarter-hour meeting with the Prime Minister insisting that the IRA must begin disarming from the first day of substantive multi-party talks if Sinn Fein is to be allowed in. A deadline for the talks next Wednesday before a recess until September leaves little time for compromise.