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Tuesday, November 16, 1999 Published at 22:22 GMT

UK: Northern Ireland

Peace deal on NI horizon

Gerry Adams and David Trimble: Expressed regret for suffering

Northern Ireland has moved another step closer to a lasting settlement with Sinn Fein and the Ulster Unionists narrowing their differences on the critical issue of paramilitary weapons.

The prospect of the two parties sharing power in a executive, or cabinet, for the province now appears closer than at any point in the review of the Good Friday Agreement.

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Link to Sinn Fein
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Both Sinn Fein, which has close links with the IRA, and the Protestant Ulster Unionists have expressed regret for the suffering wrought across Northern Ireland's communities by paramilitary violence.

A separate IRA statement is now expected within days after the Sinn Fein president stressed his party's support for the disposal of illegally-held weapons.

The BBC's Denis Murray: "There are still many hurdles ahead"
"All parties have an obligation to help bring decommissioning about," Gerry Adams said.

"Sinn Fein is committed to discharging our responsibilities in this regard."

Republican shift

The written statement indicated a substantial shift within the republican movement, though it fell short of the actual surrender of guns and explosives to the international decommissioning commission sought by hardline unionists.

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The critical passage of the statement from the Ulster Unionists implied the party's leader, David Trimble, would take the risk of sitting in government with Sinn Fein if it received a clear statement on decommissioning.

"If, in our view, a genuine and meaningful response is forthcoming [from the IRA] to Monday's statement from the Independent International Commission on Decommissioning the way will then be clear for the establishment of the political institutions envisaged in the Belfast Agreement," he said.

In June, Mr Trimble's refusal even to turn up on the day of nominations to the ruling executive threw the peace process into chaos and led to the current last-ditch review chaired by former US senator George Mitchell.

High-risk strategy

The new high-risk strategy being pursued by Northern Ireland's first minister-designate has already triggered predictions of a leadership challenge from within his party.

But the prize is an end to political violence, something Mr Adams condemned in all its permutations, including punishment beatings.

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"That conflict must be for all of us now a thing of the past, over, done with and gone," the Sinn Fein president said.

Mr Trimble urged sceptics to have faith, implicitly echoing Northern Ireland Secretary Peter Mandelson who on Monday implored people to "give peace a chance".

The Ulster Unionist leader said: "There is now a chance to create a genuine partnership between unionists and nationalists in a novel form of government.

"It is our belief that the establishment of new political institutions and the disarmament of all paramilitary organisations will herald a new beginning for all sections of our people."

The BBC's David Eades: "The IRA has never promised to get rid of it's weapons
For his part, Mr Mandelson urged a careful examination of the statements of the past two days before rushing to any snap judgments.

"I urge everyone to do what the politicians have done and that is to stand back, take stock, reflect," he said.

"Showing cool heads now is a very small price to pay."

After two days of highly orchestrated but hugely significant statements from the peace talks overseers and participants, all eyes will be on the words now awaited from the IRA.

The republican paramilitary organisation has previously always insisted it will never give up its weapons.

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