Final arrangements for Sinn Fein, the political wing of the Irish Republican Army (IRA), to take part in Northern Ireland peace negotiations next month will almost certainly be agreed to this week, British and Irish government sources say.
This would open the way for Sinn Fein leaders to make history Sept. 15 by walking through the doors of Belfast's Stormont Castle - in the past a citadel of Unionist rule - and taking their seats.
That will likely be followed by another historic meeting, this time between British Prime Minister Tony Blair and Sinn Fein President Gerry Adams in London, probably after Sept. 15.
Such a meeting would be a high-risk affair for Mr. Blair, who would stake a large part of his political capital on progress being made at the peace negotiations.
At talks in Belfast, Northern Ireland, today, Britain's Secretary for Northern Ireland Marjorie "Mo" Mowlam, and Ireland's Foreign Affairs Minister Ray Burke were set to reach a formula for seating Sinn Fein at the talks.
David Trimble, head of the Ulster Unionist Party (UUP), which wants continued union with Britain, has threatened to not sit at the same table as Sinn Fein. But British sources indicated yesterday that Sinn Fein would almost certainly receive an invitation to attend a preliminary session of the talks scheduled for Sept. 9. At that meeting, Mr. Adams and his deputy, Martin McGuinness, would be asked to sign principles of democracy and nonviolence laid down by the peace talks chairman, former United States Sen. George Mitchell.
So far Adams and Mr. McGuinness have been refused entry to the peace talks on the grounds that they refused to subscribe to the Mitchell principles.
Blair's aides said yesterday there was no firm plan for a meeting between Adams and the prime minister. But Blair has agreed to meet the leaders of all other important Northern Ireland political parties.
The most likely timing for a Blair-Adams encounter would be several days after substantive peace talks begin Sept. 15. Media reports out of London suggest that the meeting might be arranged to look accidental, much as President Clinton and Adams apparently bumped into each other when the Sinn Fein leader visited the US.
British sources, however, are indicating that Adams, who is an elected member of the British House of Commons but has not taken his seat, will probably receive an invitation to visit Blair at 10 Downing Street, the prime minister's office.
One senior official source in Dublin said the seating of Sinn Fein at the peace talks would be "the logical outcome of the IRA's decision on July 19 to renew its cease-fire."
Soon after the cease-fire was declared July 19, Dr. Mowlam indicated that if it lasted for six weeks and appeared sincere and genuine, Sinn Fein could expect an invitation to the peace talks. The six-week period will have passed as of the end of this week.
The UUP reportedly is undecided on the tactics it will adopt if Sinn Fein joins peace negotiations. Mr. Trimble is consulting widely within his party. Senior UUP sources yesterday said he was likely to opt for a process of indirect contacts on the pattern of the "proximity talks" at the Bosnia peace conference in Dayton, Ohio in 1995.
Contacts between the UUP and Sinn Fein would be through intermediaries, enabling Trimble to remain in the peace process but in part satisfy critics within his party who regard Sinn Fein as an unlawful terrorist organization.
Seamus Mallon, deputy leader of the Social Democratic and Labour Party, which wants the North to join the Republic of Ireland through peaceful means, said Sunday that the UUP would probably attend the talks at Stormont next month. But he conceded that the UUP would find it difficult to agree to "sit in the same room as Sinn Fein." Speaking on Irish radio, Mr. Mallon said "political imperatives" were working to make both unionists and nationalists "seriously address Northern Ireland's problems."
Earlier this month, Ken Maginnis, security spokesman for the UUP, and Sinn Fein's McGuinness faced each other in a TV debate. The atmosphere between the two men was tense, but their readiness to share a TV studio raised hopes in London and Dublin that eventually Sinn Fein and the UUP would accept the need to share the same conference room.
The only snag likely to arise at today's scheduled meeting between Mowlam and Mr. Burke is the composition of a committee to oversee the decommissioning of terrorist weapons.
Irish sources were reported to be unhappy with a proposal that Canadian Gen. John de Chastelain should chair the committee.
General de Chastelain has taken a tough line on the handover of weapons. The Irish government is said to be worried that he might make demands on the IRA that Adams and McGuinness could not support.
But the appointment of a chairman with a softer approach toward decommissioning would likely anger Trimble and might give him an excuse to refuse to turn up at Stormont Castle.