Ulster Unionists reject call for talks

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ULSTER Unionists yesterday rejected joint moves by the Irish government, Sinn Fein and the SDLP to draw British ministers into all-party talks to save the Northern Ireland peace process.

David Trimble MP, legal spokesman for the Ulster Unionist Party, described the call for early discussions as "an attempt to duck the issue of decommissioning IRA arms".

He accused the Dublin government of reneging on the terms of the Downing Street Declaration and said the 380 hijackings and petrol bomb attacks of recent days were proof of "provo elements" intent on wrecking the peace.

Two days ago, the Irish prime minister, John Bruton, joined forces with the nationalist parties of the north in putting pressure on John Major to enter all-party talks.

Yesterday's rebuff from the UUP, Dr Ian Paisley's DUP and the moderate- unionist Alliance Party brought all shades of unionist opinion out against the initiative.

Sammy Wilson, the DUP spokesman, dismissed the Dublin call as a bid to save "the shambolic peace process". He accused SDLP leader John Hume of forgetting his earlier position when he said talks could not take place with guns under the table.

Mr Wilson said: "It is clear the SDLP and the Irish government need the IRA at talks with their guns intact, because that is the main negotiating strength which nationalists have. Adams, Hume and Bruton can call for talks until the cows come home, but they cannot force Unionists to talk with Sinn Fein terrorists."

Martin McGuiness, Sinn Fein leader, has warned of the peace process "falling asunder" if all-party talks do not get under way quickly.

Behind the scenes, Ulster Unionists have given a discreet boost to the Northern Ireland peace process by calling for the repatriation of IRA and loyalist terrorists to jails in the province.

More than 30 prisoners, virtually all republicans, stand to benefit from the proposal, which would in turn open up the prospect of much earlier release for hundreds of paramilitaries jailed on terrorist charges in Northern Ireland.

Following the release of Private Lee Clegg, Sinn Fein has repeatedly insisted that there must be progress on the release of republican prisoners, while the Government has demanded that the IRA makes concessions on the decommissioning of its arms before inclusive talks with hard-line nationalists can begin.

Both Irish and British governments have rejected any formal linkage between the decommissioning of arms and the early release of prisoners, but there is a tacit acceptance that movement on one will trigger progress on the other.