Back on course for peace in Ulster: At 'workmanlike' Dublin meeting Major and Reynolds work slowly towards a ceasefire declaration

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The Independent Online
THE BRITISH and Irish governments yesterday kept alive their joint peace process for Northern Ireland by making slow and difficult progress towards a fresh 'joint declaration' aimed at bringing an end to more than two decades of violence in the province.

Despite the clear differences between the two governments which have emerged over the past fortnight, threatening progress, John Major and Albert Reynolds resuscitated hopes of a settlement.

After failing to achieve a breakthrough the two Prime Ministers deferred many outstanding issues until talks next week, between officials, in advance of the second scheduled discussions at the European Council meeting on Friday.

Mr Major admitted there were outstanding difficulties but said they had made useful progress. Mr Reynolds referred to 'open and frank talking' that began with a clearing of the air, a reference to revelations of official leaks and British contacts with the IRA.

They failed to make progress on the key question of Irish self determination, North and South, seen by Dublin as essential to its push for an IRA ceasefire. Significantly, both men declined to take questions on that issue. Though Dublin had been deeply unhappy that Mr Major had not given Mr Reynolds prior notice of the dialogue with the Provisionals, the Taoiseach said: 'I'm satisfied that it will not interfere with our discussions.'

Mr Reynolds confirmed his government was prepared to deal with the Irish constitution's claim over Northern Ireland but stressed his preference for that to be dealt with in a final package. He emphasised that the priority was to end the killing in Northern Ireland. 'If at the end of the peace process the outcome is balanced, the Irish government is prepared to put to the people the agreement and whatever that may entail.'

When pressed, Mr Major refused to accept contacts were continuing with the IRA, but said: 'The lines are there. I've no idea if the IRA will avail themselves of them.'

A main point at issue during an afternoon of plenary talks in Dublin was the extent to which a 'peace' document, originally drawn up by Dublin, should cover constitutional issues, including the Irish claim to sovereignty over Northern Ireland. The British argued any joint declaration should cover such issues, not least to reassure Unionists of what lay in store in any agreement on the constitutional status of Northern Ireland.

The Irish had begun the day by saying that a document directly designed to pave the way for a cessation of IRA violence - linked to the principle of 'self determination' for the people of the island of Ireland - was the urgent priority. Constitutional issues could then be discussed in greater detail at a later stage between all constitutional parties. Those would presumably include, if the IRA renounces violence, Sinn Fein. Unionists object to the term 'self-determination' because of its nationalist resonances.

The importance of the meeting was underlined by the presence in the British delegation of both Douglas Hurd, the Foreign Secretary, and Sir Robin Butler, the Cabinet Secretary. The atmosphere, described as 'workmanlike' by British sources, improved markedly in the course of a day which began with Mr Reynolds expressing dismay over Dublin being kept in the dark about Whitehall's secret and continued contacts with the IRA since February. Those were not divulged to the Irish government until last Friday.

Earlier Noel Dempsey, the Irish government's chief whip, had said: 'If all the allegations made over the last 24 hours are true then quite rightly the government would be seriously disturbed and angry.' He referred to suggestions that details of the confidential London-Dublin talks had been revealed to Sinn Fein during the course of the secret documents, adding: 'If true, that would be unacceptable to the Irish government and a breach of faith.'

Mr Dempsey suggested that London had misunderstood what joint determination would entail. Any settlement would have to be put to a referendum, requiring clear majorities in two separate and concurrent votes in the Republic and in Northern Ireland.

Diplomatic fudge, page 2

Letters, page 17