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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Sinn Fein, British Official Debate IRA Disarmament

WASHINGTON -- Britain's top Northern Ireland official and Sinn Fein President Gerry Adams held their first official talks -- and spelled out sharply differing views on disarming the IRA.

Northern Ireland Secretary Sir Patrick Mayhew said he told Adams "bluntly" that his IRA supporters had to start dismantling their guerrilla arsenal, but Adams said Britain should withdraw its troops and free IRA prisoners as part of an overall settlement.

The 30-minute sessionWednesday, a largely symbolic encounter which began with a handshake out of view of the media, was held during the opening of a White House forum intended to draw investment into Ireland and Northern Ireland to reinforce eight months of peace.

It ended half an hour later with both men saying the talks were frank and useful, but admitting differences over IRA arms, the issue which Britain says bars Sinn Fein from being treated as a fully-fledged political partner.

The fact that the talks took place at all was seen as a symbolic victory for Sinn Fein, which was banned from British airwaves and excluded from Britain until a cease-fire last September.

Mayhew said he told Adams, whose party seeks to end British rule of Northern Ireland, that Sinn Fein would not be invited to new round-table talks on a lasting Northern Ireland settlement while the IRA kept its guns.

"What I will not do is sit down and negotiate with the political wing of a paramilitary organization that is doing nothing to diminish its stocks of arms," Mayhew told reporters.

Adams said the meeting, the highest-level contact between the British government and his party, had been "frank and useful" and that the talks "helped bridge the gap between the British government and Sinn Fein."

Britain has invited all mainstream political parties in Northern Ireland to new talks to forge a lasting political settlement, but says Sinn Fein and its Protestant Loyalist foes will be excluded while their supporters are armed.

Mayhew said he had sought assurances from Adams that the IRA would begin disposing of semtex plastic explosive, ground-to-air missiles, machine guns and mortars.

"I asked Mr. Adams for a positive response. I regret I did not get one," Mayhew said. "I hope that Mr. Adams, as a result of this meeting, will understand the strength with which the government holds this view."

Mayhew said he would be giving the same message to so-called Loyalist politicians close to Protestant gunmen who declared their own cease-fire last October.

Linking the talks to the investment conference, he told Adams in a prepared statement that Sinn Fein could best promote business confidence "by using its influence with the IRA to get substantial progress on the decommissioning of their stock of arms and explosives."