Unionists spurn Sinn Fein arms plan

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The Ulster Unionists last night delivered a setback to the peace process by pouring scorn on Sinn Fein's proposal to allow the IRA to decommission its own weapons.

The British government reacted more cautiously to the Sinn Fein statement after the international body on decommissioning IRA arms, led by United States Senator George Mitchell, met John Major at Downing Street.

The Prime Minister told the Mitchell commission, which will go to Dublin today, that the Sinn Fein proposal had not altered Britain's demand that some progress should be made on decommissioning by the IRA before Sinn Fein is admitted to all-party talks.

The Prime Minister's office said the Government's policy had not been changed by the Sinn Fein submission to the Mitchell commission, which was being studied by British officials before a definitive response was made.

There was cautious optimism initially that the proposals by Sinn Fein showed sufficient movement to put the peace process back on track. The idea of the IRA decommissioning its own weapons, overseen by an independent observer, was in line with the range of options set out some months ago by British ministers.

First indications of a thaw from the Ulster Unionists were reversed last night after the small print in the Sinn Fein statement had been studied.

Ken Maginnis, the Ulster Unionists' security spokesman, rejected a Sinn Fein suggestion that the IRA would consider destroying its own weapons only after an overall political settlement on the future of Northern Ireland was reached. The idea was "totally unacceptable, unworkable and unattainable".

The Mitchell commission is due to report its conclusions to the governments next week after talks today with John Bruton, the Irish prime minister, and discussions with Unionist MPs and loyalist representatives over the weekend.

In the document, Sinn Fein said Britain's proposal that those in possession of illegal arms could be responsible for their destruction was a method which "may find acceptance" among republicans. But an early breakthrough in the stalemate on disarmament appeared unlikely as Sinn Fein ruled out any decommissioning before an overall political settlement.

Even a gesture at this stage would symbolise an IRA surrender, Sinn Fein said. Its spokesman, Martin McGuinness, claimed Britain's demands for the Provisionals to begin getting rid of the guns before the party could be allowed to sit at the negotiating table were a stalling device and a bogus argument to avoid dialogue.

Meanwhile, an indication of the state of opinion in the Irish Republic came yesterday from Bertie Ahern, leader of Fianna Fail, who strongly criticised both Sinn Fein and the British government.