Dail welcomes `balanced' document

Optimistic Dublin sees opportunity for talks to proceed against background of peace. Alan Murdoch reports A FRAMEWORK FOR PEACE
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Political leaders in Dublin reacted to Unionist hostility towards the Framework Document by highlighting the need for Northern Ireland's nationalist minority to be given an equal status if tensions underlying the Troubles were to be faced.

Dail leaders welcomed the framework as fair and balanced. That was evident in the Dail standing ovation for the four Irish senior ministers behind its formulation on their return from the Belfast launch.

The optimism that, despite criticism, the framework could mean the ceasefire being secured and a dialogue proceeding, was reflected in Dublin evening newspaper front page headlines last night - "Our best hope" and "Peace in our grasp".

John Bruton insisted the framework was not "a cage within which [Unionist] political leaders will have their dialogue confined".

Its four core principles were, he said, self-determination, consent of the governed, agreement through exclusively peaceful means, and agreements protecting the rights of both Northern Ireland traditions.

The Taoiseach's presentation appeared to downplay the potency of the executive powers planned for the proposed cross-border body. To dissolve grassroots Unionist alarm, he said it would carry out "no function whether executive, harmonising or consultative" without agreement from Northern Ireland representatives.

He did not "envisage thousands of civil servants working out uniform arrangements" for the whole island, but expected probably three Dublin ministers and three from the emerging Northern Ireland administration "sitting down from time to time", carrying out functions that would be designated "only where it makes practical common sense".

On Irish radio, Mr Bruton defended the absence of a formal wording for amendments to articles 2 and 3 of the Irish Constitution which contain the territorial claim, saying it was important "not to pre-empt the rights of the Dail and Seanad" to influence the wording.

He was not unhappy with the wording produced by the last Government. "But we felt it was better to get the framework completed. That was a more sensible use of time."

Dail leaders, including Mr Bruton, urged Unionists to put forward their own proposals alongside those from the governments, while allowing nationalists a level playing pitch. Mr Bruton said: "It's not good enough for Unionists to say we want this and that for our constitution. They've also got to be able to say we're offering this or that for nationalists."

"They should realise changes to articles 2 and 3 "would amount to a very dramatic affirmation of the rights of Unionists in Northern Ireland," he said.

Anger from Unionists prompted all Dail parties to emphasise the Framework Document had to be understood as addressing an inherited "political deficit" on the Northern Ireland nationalist side. The two prime ministers' calls for "calm and measured consideration" of the document were echoed on all sides.

The strongest riposte to Unionist hostility to the framework proposals came from the Progressive Democrats which, since its 1986 formation, has repeatedly emphasised the importance of Unionist consent.

Mary Harney, the PD leader, nevertheless voiced deep concern at Unionist negativity, singling out Ian Paisley's "declaration of war on Northern Ireland" outburst, and the incident in which the Upper Bann MP David Trimble stormed out of a television studio.

She said: "Nationalists have a lot of catching up to do, and really all they're getting through this document is what Unionists have had for many years.

"They [Unionists] have the Union maintained, they have all the symbols of that including the flag. They have their own representatives that sit at Westminster. They have British ministers. All of their Britishness has been recognised.

"Do they accept that nationalists in Northern Ireland are as fully entitled to having their political rights and aspirations accommodated as Unionists?" she asked.

The Fianna Fail Opposition party leader, Bertie Ahern, welcomed the document as "fair and balanced" - particularly the fact that the cross-border bodies had been so clearly defined. He said it contained no important or substantial variations to the draft negotiated by the Fianna Fail-led coalitionthat left power before Christmas.

However, Mr Ahern was disappointed a specific wording for amendments to article 2 and 3 were not included. He revealed that that Fianna Fail- led government had resisted for seven months British pressure to drop altogether article 2 of the Irish Constitution, which defines Ireland's national territory as the whole island.

Mr Ahern said he believed the Irish Constitution should still contain "a strong commitment to the ideal of a united Ireland brought about by agreement and consent". But that would not prevent nationalists reaching consensus with Unionists on an agreed Ireland in the meantime.