Ulster breakthrough within reach after talks on IRA arms

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The Independent Online

Three days of intensive Anglo-Irish talks ended without full agreement yesterday, but with the prospect of a significant move by the IRA on the issue of its arsenal.

Three days of intensive Anglo-Irish talks ended without full agreement yesterday, but with the prospect of a significant move by the IRA on the issue of its arsenal.

Although many important issues remain to be pinned down, Tony Blair said the issue of ending paramilitary activity and putting weapons beyond use could be resolved.

If so, this would be a giant step for a peace process dogged for a decade by the arms issue, with the IRA holding on to its guns while Unionists clamour for disarmament.

The Prime Minister and his Irish counterpart, Bertie Ahern, appear to have been impressed by an offer on IRA disarmament conveyed to them during the talks, presumably by Sinn Fein's president, Gerry Adams. It is also reported that the Rev Ian Paisley, leader of the Democratic Unionist Party and a long-time hardliner, gave a favourable initial reaction to the republican message.

Mr Blair and Mr Paisley had been calling for acts of completion by the IRA on its weaponry and activities. The DUP leader has repeatedly stipulated that he would not contemplate going into government with Sinn Fein while the IRA remained active.

The weekend talks at Leeds Castle in Kent came to an end yesterday but are to be reconvened in Belfast on Tuesday. These talks will concern the institutions set up under the 1998 Good Friday Agreement.

The DUP is pressing for wide-ranging changes to the agreement, which it describes as a failed accord. The two governments are open to making some changes, but are adamant its essential structure should remain intact.

Mr Blair declared: "It is important that nothing upset the basic and fundamental equilibrium of the agreement." Mr Ahern added that any changes must be "agreement-compliant". The question now is whether further talks can meet DUP concerns without undermining the agreement. Mr Blair said: "I don't believe this set of institutional issues is going to scupper things. We believe what is now on offer is reasonable in its substance and historic in its meaning."

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