Hours before President Clinton was due to arrive in London, Britain and Ireland agreed Tuesday to set aside a dispute over disarming the IRA and set a target date for talks they hope all parties in Northern Ireland will join.
The disarmament issue was referred to an international commission, with advisory powers, to be chaired by former U.S. Sen. George Mitchell. The two governments said they hoped all-party negotiations could begin at the end of February.
British Prime Minister John Major, speaking at a late-night news conference with Irish leader John Bruton, said he still believed talks would not start until the Irish Republican Army gives up some weapons.
Bruton told reporters the handover of arms “is not an achievable objective at this stage.
“We have not come here today to pretend there are no differences between us or between the parties,” said Bruton. “There are.”
Both men said they hoped their “twin-track” formula would create space and momentum for the political parties in Northern Ireland to build up the confidence to meet in negotiations.
But both sides stuck to their positions on IRA arms. Major said Britain still insisted that the IRA start handing over arms before Sinn Fein can attend all-party talks
On the decommissioning of IRA arms, Major said, “We see no other way other than the physical beginning of decommissioning by Sinn Fein. It was our position and it remains our position.”
“What we have come here to do most emphatically,” Bruton said, “is to launch a process … designed to overcome these difficulties.”
In Washington, Clinton hailed the announcement: “I want to salute both these leaders (Major and Bruton) for their vision, their courage and for their leadership for peace.
“This is an opportunity to begin a dialogue in which all views are represented and in which all are heard.”
It was not immediately clear whether the formula would be acceptable to the Sinn Fein, the party that supports the IRA, or to the pro-British Unionist parties which represent the Protestant majority in Northern Ireland.
Bruton hastened to London on Tuesday night after an evening telephone call with Major.
Both prime ministers maintained they were under no pressure from Clinton to announce some breakthrough in the flagging peace process before he arrives in Northern Ireland’s capital Belfast on Thursday. He will travel to Dublin on Friday.
Belfast newspapers were calling the American president’s trip “Clinton’s Mission Impossible” - a one-day blitz intended to promote peace among factions that until last year were killing each other.
Clinton’s schedule in Northern Ireland is designed to embrace all and offend none. Workers on Tuesday erected a wall of 5-inch-thick bulletproof glass slabs outside city hall, where Clinton is to light a big Christmas tree from Tennessee on Thursday night.
He is to be joined by schoolchildren reading letters about peace, and one child from each side will help him light the tree in front of tens of thousands.