Clinton backs early entry to talks for SF after ceasefire


PRESIDENT Clinton has given his backing to the Taoiseach's view that Sinn Fein should be admitted rapidly to talks once an IRA ceasefire is restored.

He also indicated that having talks without Sinn Fein could not lead to peace, and he paid tribute to the loyalists "for holding the ceasefire".

The President called on the IRA to "immediately call a ceasefire in words as well as deeds". If the IRA did that, "I am convinced that Sinn Fein will be invited to participate in the talks, and we believe that substantive and inclusive peace talks are the only way to resolve this".

The President was speaking to reporters in the Oval Office of the White House before his discussions with Mr Bruton and the Tanaiste, Mr Spring. He said that in spite of all the foreign policy challenges of his second term, Ireland would still be a "priority" as it was in his first term. The peace process was going through "a rough patch, but if we just keep at it I think it will come out all right".

Asked if in the event of a ceasefire, Sinn Fein should get "immediate and automatic access" to the talks process, Mr Clinton said he believed Sinn Fein would be "invited to participate in the talks fairly soon thereafter".

Later, a White House spokesman said the "timing of Sinn Fein coming into talks is a matter the two governments must address". Asked by The Irish Times if the President had a view on the timing, the spokesman said that "we find it best not to give advice publicly on issues such as this".

The Taoiseach said later the half-hour meeting showed that the President's interest in "the struggle for peace and reconciliation in Ireland is undiminished. He told us he intends to keep working consistently for peace and he wants all of us to do the same".

Mr Bruton said "the more it is stated, as it was by President Clinton, that when there is a ceasefire Sinn Fein will be quickly admitted to the talks, the better". This would help "the political calculation within the republican movement in favour of a ceasefire".

The Taoiseach also tried hard to discourage the growing impression that the peace talks will most likely be "put on hold" pending the outcome of the British election, due before next April. He repeated several times that there would be more flexibility for getting Sinn Fein into talks rapidly if the ceasefire was called before the election rather than after.

President Clinton shares this view, according to White House officials.

The White House fielded its most senior team for the meeting with the Taoiseach, Tanaiste and officials. Present on the US side were the Vice-President, Mr Al Gore; the outgoing Secretary of State, Mr Warren Christopher; the outgoing National Security Adviser, Mr Tony Lake; his deputy, Ms Nancy Soderberg; and the US ambassador to Ireland, Mrs Jean Kennedy Smith.

On a lighter note, Mr Christopher thanked the Taoiseach for the hospitality he had received on his 32 visits to Ireland, referring to the stopovers for refuelling at Shannon Airport.

In Belfast yesterday, the Sinn Fein chairman, Mr Mitchel McLaughlin, accused Mr Bruton of taking the "easy option" in blaming republicans for the current political impasse. "His real responsibility, with the rest of us, is to bring about the type of real negotiations which can make peace a lasting reality," Mr McLaughlin said.

. Following his meeting with Mr Clinton, the Taoiseach flew to Ottawa yesterday afternoon and met the Canadian Prime Minister, Mr Jean Chretien, Katherine Wilton writes. The two leaders signed a political declaration calling for more trade between the European Union and Canada.

A study has been commissioned to find ways to increase trade and reduce tariffs.