LONDON -- Britain and Ireland reignited the stalled Northern Ireland peace process last night with an agreement that could lead to all-party political talks by late February.
The announcement -- on the eve of President Clinton's arrival in Britain -- came during an extraordinary late-night Downing Street news conference with British Prime Minister John Major and Irish Prime Minister John Bruton.
"Reaching this agreement has been neither easy nor quick," Mr. Major said.
Mr. Clinton, preparing to leave for London last night, praised the agreement: "It demonstrates the will for peace is more powerful than bombs and bullets and it reminds us once again that with courage and resolve bitter legacies of conflict can be overcome."
The two governments agreed to a "twin track" approach to help cement the Northern Ireland peace after a 15-month paramilitary cease fire.
Under the plan, an international body will deal with the lethal issue of weapons held by the Irish Republican Army and other paramilitary groups. Former Senate Majority leader George Mitchell will head the three-member commission, which will identify and advise on a method for full and verifiable decommissioning of weapons.
In the meantime, preliminary talks among the parties -- the British, the Irish, the Sinn Fein and the Northern Ireland protestants -- will be held to pave the way for formal peace talks in late February.
But the British government remains adamant that the Irish Republican Army must hand over weapons before its political wing, Sinn Fein, gets a seat at the bargaining table for the formal talks. Sinn Fein leader Gerry Adams, as well as the Irish government, have remained publicly opposed to the pre-condition.
"Everyone is going to have to have some courage if we are going to move forward. That includes Mr. Adams," said Mr. Major.
Irish Prime Minister Bruton said a handover of arms "is not an achievable objective at this stage." He added that "differences" between the parties remain.
Sinn Fein appeared to be keeping its options open last night. For the past few weeks, its leaders had warned that a resumption of violence was imminent.
Mr. Adams told Britain's Press Association: "When Sinn Fein is briefed on the detail of [last night's] agreement we will explore this positively as we have all other propositions to re-establish the peace process. We will come to this on the basis of our analysis and integrity."
Two weeks ago, on a visit to Washington, Mr. Adams insisted in an interview that the British insistence on decommissioning was unreasonable -- and a hidden demand that the IRA "surrender" -- something he said would not happen.
"To make that type of gesture is not within my gift to deliver," he said. "The IRA wouldn't do it."
Privately, two diplomats with the Irish Republic agreed with Mr. Adams. One noted, as did Mr. Adams, that the warring factions in Bosnia -- a war far more bloody than Northern Ireland's -- had negotiated a settlement while armed to the teeth.
But Jeffery Donaldson, an official with the Protestants' largest political group in the north, the Ulster Union Party, said, "We're not asking for surrender. What we are saying is that if Sinn Fein is moving into democratic processes, they must leave behind the implements of war."
The agreement announced last night was cut after frantic negotiation as the governments sought to come up with their own deal in advance of the Clinton visit.
"What we need now is to move towards political structures that will give political expression to the feelings of the people, feelings that are expressed in terms of a yearning for peace, a yearning for reconciliation and a yearning for a way of life that entrenches mutual respect," Mr. Bruton said.
bTC But one senior member of the Ulster Unionist party voiced doubts about the agreement.
The Rev. Martin Smyth told Britain's Sky TV: "There's been a fudge in which both governments have been conning each other."