Ulster on the verge of peace breakthrough: Expectations heightened after Americans meet Sinn Fein. David McKittrick reports

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The Independent Online
THE HEAD of the Irish-American delegation which yesterday met Sinn Fein leaders in Belfast said last night they were hopeful of 'a dramatic breakthrough' in the Irish peace process.

His words helped raise to a new pitch the speculation that a substantial IRA ceasefire is to be declared shortly.

The Independent understands that this potentially historic development is to be announced within the next few weeks.

Even the news of two mortar attacks last night on police stations in Downpatrick, Co Down, and Donemana, Co Tyrone, did not dispel the mood of expectation, since republican sources have made it clear IRA attacks could be expected right up to the moment of any ceasefire.

Ten people suffered minor injuries in Downpatrick and extensive damage was caused to the immediate area when the mortar exploded in its launcher concealed inside a van in a pub car park. There were no reports of injuries in the attack on the RUC station in Donemana.

The American delegation, led by the former Congressman Bruce Morrison, met the Sinn Fein leaders Gerry Adams and Martin McGuinness for several hours in Belfast, both sides emerging with strikingly upbeat assessments.

Mr Morrison said he had been greatly encouraged by an 'extremely constructive' meeting, adding: 'We are hopeful, based on our discussions, of a dramatic breakthrough, but we don't know whether that will occur.'

On Thursday, the Americans met the Taoiseach, Albert Reynolds, and the Irish foreign minister, Dick Spring, for talks in Dublin, but they are said not to have brought a specific message from the Irish government to Belfast.

None the less, Sinn Fein is believed to be anxious to retain its new-found influence among Irish- Americans, whose message is that potential political gains are available in the US, but only on condition the IRA campaign is ended.

The republicans are thought to have sounded out the delegation on the likely reactions to various scenarios, both in the Clinton administration and within Irish America generally. Martin McGuinness, of Sinn Fein, described the meeting as 'very helpful, very constructive, and we're greatly heartened at what we heard'. He added: 'I would hope that as a result of today's meeting we have actually moved the peace process on quite significantly.'

There is now almost universal belief that the IRA is about to make a significant move. Mr McGuinness is regarded as the foremost icon of republican militancy and his words will be regarded as a direct reflection of the mood in the IRA.

However, Jim Nicholson, the Ulster Unionist chairman, said his party had no intention of getting involved in any negotiations with Sinn Fein in either the short or long term, and warned that a total cessation of violence would merely be the first step on a very long road.