Ulster may escape handgun ban

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Handguns may not be banned in Northern Ireland after all, as part of Govern- ment plans to woo the Ulster Unionists.

Tony Blair is considering the exemption from the post-Dunblane ban as one of a number of "confidence-building measures" proposed by Mo Mowlam, the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, in order to tempt David Trimble's Ulster Unionists into talks along with Sinn Fein on 9 September.

Other possible concessions to the Unionists could include pledges on the release of prisoners, and further public assurances over decommissioning.

Last week, Sinn Fein accepted a Government invitation to attend talks, but the main Unionist party has yet to decide whether to take part. It is still dissatisfied with arrangements on the decommissioning of paramilitary weapons.

Under new legislation, possession of large calibre pistols will become illegal on 1 October. But because of Northern Ireland's separate legislative arrangements, the Government believes it would be possible not to implement the measure there - at least until paramilitary decommissioning has taken place.

The post-Dunblane ban has caused concern among Unionists who argue that the IRA still maintains a formidable armoury. They believe that keeping hand-guns for self-defence may be complicated by the Dunblane legislation.

Ian Taylor, Conservative spokesman on Northern Ireland, said yesterday: "Full implementation of the post-Dunblane laws before paramilitary decommissioning is a concern which has been raised with me.

"It is a matter that needs to be looked at sympathetically," he said. "The last few weeks have been used for building confidence within Sinn Fein about entry into talks. The next few days must be about concentrating on building up confidence within the Unionists."

Despite the Unionists' public reservations about the Anglo-Irish discussion process, Mr Blair is still determined to try to achieve round table talks. Some Government sources think Mr Trimble is under great pressure to take part fully.

However, as a second-best, ministers are not ruling out the possibility of "proximity" talks, under which the Unionists take part in discussions, but do not sit face-to-face with Sinn Fein.

The Unionists, among whom opinion is divided, are undertaking a consultation exercise and are anxious not to be blamed for causing disruption to the peace process.