Mr Blair made the announcement in the course of a speech mapping out Labour's vision for the future of Northern Ireland. He stressed the union with Britain was here to stay but also indicated his desire for a strong Irish dimension, with increased linkages with Dublin. He pulled off the unusual feat of drawing welcomes for his speech from both Ulster Unionist leader David Trimble and SDLP leader John Hume. Since the aims of these two parties are generally held to be inimical, it may take some time to clarify whether one or both have misinterpreted Mr Blair's intentions.
Initial response from Sinn Fein was critical, Martin McGuinness complaining that nationalists "will be disappointed by the pro-Unionist emphasis in Mr Blair's speech." Nevertheless, Sinn Fein, having for months called for direct talks with the Government, could hardly have turned down the initiative and last night Mr McGuinness confirmed Sinn Fein would be taking up the offer of talks. Telephone contact between the two sides is expected as early as today.
It emerged last night that one of the reasons for the unusually widespread welcome given to the speech was a detailed consultation which took place earlier this week. Mr Blair is understood to have spoken to John Major, while Ms Mowlam spoke to her predecessor, Sir Patrick Mayhew. Mr Trimble, Mr Hume and others were also consulted.
Mr Blair told his audience at the Royal Ulster Agricultural Show: "My message to Sinn Fein is clear. The settlement train is leaving. I want you on that train. But it is leaving anyway and I will not allow it to wait for you." In the key passage of his speech, the Prime Minister declared: "To make sure there is no danger of misunderstanding, I am prepared to allow officials to meet Sinn Fein, provided events on the ground, here and elsewhere, do not make that impossible. This is not about negotiating the terms of a ceasefire. We simply want to explain our position and to assess whether the republican movement genuinely is ready to give up violence and commit itself to politics alone. If they are, I will not be slow in my response. If they are not, they can expect no sympathy or understanding. I will be implacable in pursuit of terrorism."
In other words, Mr Blair has given republicans a further and possibly final chance to renew the IRA ceasefire and opt for politics rather than violence. In doing so he refrained from making a number of stipulations which John Major had laid down as his government's policy, and which republicans had denounced as unacceptable pre-conditions.
Mr Blair, by contrast, played down the decommissioning issue and left various issues open to negotiation. That republicans are now again to be in direct contact with the Government will raise hopes that a new ceasefire could be in prospect. Unionists took comfort from Mr Blair's bald statement - "I value the union," from his emphasis on the principle of consent, and from his observation that "none of us in this hall today, even the youngest, is likely to see Northern Ireland as anything but a part of the United Kingdom." Together, these arguably amount to as strong a commitment to the union as any given by Mr Major.
But at the same time constitutional nationalists such as Mr Hume welcomed the fresh approach to republicans and the Prime Minister's assertion that the 1995 framework document, with its suggestion of strong new Anglo-Irish links, set out a reasonable basis for future negotiation. Mr Hume said people across Ireland owed Mr Blair a "debt of gratitude" and urged Sinn Fein to take up the offer of talks immediately.
He had delivered "the most comprehensive speech made by any British prime minister in the last 25 years of our Troubles".
Mr Trimble welcomed the pledge that if there was no IRA ceasefire the talks, due to resume on 3 June, would go on without Sinn Fein.
"That is why the inter-party talks made no progress for the last six months, because various parties were not prepared to get into serious talks without Sinn Fein". While Mr Blair was attempting to win a new IRA ceasefire the RUC Chief Constable warned that the loyalist ceasefire was unravelling. Ronnie Flanagan accused loyalists of breaching their 30-month ceasefire with recent attacks and blamed "constituent parts" of the Combined Loyalist Military Command. "There has been a continuing disintegration of that ceasefire and the implications are stark," he said.Reuse content