Ulster arms body starts work

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The Independent Online

Ireland Correspondent

The international commission charged with the daunting task of resolving the long-running arms decommissioning dispute yesterday began its work in Belfast by meeting Sir Patrick Mayhew, the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland.

The commission's brief is to attempt to reconcile the positions of the Government and the republican movement - that is to say, to find some way of accommodating two conflicting stances: guns before talks, or talks before guns.

Given that many months of Anglo-Irish diplomacy have failed to resolve differences between London and Dublin, there is little confidence that the commission can come up with the type of formula which has so far eluded the governments.

The commission chairman, the former US Senator George Mitchell, admitted yesterday that success was "far from assured". The same point was made by another commission member, the former Finnish prime minister, Harri Holkeri: "I am by no means [a] political Father Christmas . . . The solution must be found in the minds of the people in Northern Ireland, but we are going to do our utmost to help them."

The third member of the commission, which has the brief to produce a report by mid- January, is the chief of the Canadian defence staff, General John de Chastelain. Although the Government has said it considers itself under no obligation to accept any of their recommendations, the seniority of the three commissioners means that the report will carry considerable weight.

Mr Mitchell said: "We want it clearly understood . . . that we enter the process with open minds and motivated solely by a desire to make a constructive contribution." No decisions would be made, he said, until the commissioners had spoken to all interested parties. They would be meeting representatives of political parties in Belfast, and members of fringe loyalist parties, as well as the Irish government. All hearings are to be held in private.

Sinn Fein is to give its submission in Dublin. Its president, Gerry Adams, yesterday repeated his criticism that the British government was being inflexible and unreasonable.

The commission's work represents one part of a twin-track approach which includes movement towards full political talks. A target date of the beginning of February has been set for the opening of all-party talks; Sinn Fein's admission to these is contingent on reaching agreement on decommissioning.

Meanwhile, an Irish government minister has called for talks between Mr Adams and John Major. Proinsias de Rossa, leader of the Democratic Left, said that such a meeting could help in "copper-fastening the peace".