John Major yesterday launched a determined effort to salvage the Irish peace process in the aftermath of Friday's lethal IRA bomb, as Dublin and London moved to establish common ground over the means of securing all-party talks.
Mr Major last night used a rare prime ministerial television broadcast to reassert his determination that "peace does not have to be a dream". It came after he had expressed his strong preference for elections in Northern Ireland, but added that his mind was not closed to a range of options for rescuing the peace process.
In turn there were strong hints from Dublin that it is not ruling out the prospect of elections, despite the sharp opposition to the idea expressed by John Bruton, the Taioseach, at the weekend.
Mr Major told a full and sombre House of Commons yesterday that the IRA's "evil act in London" would not deter him from the search for peace. He declared: "If we are pushed back, we will start again. If we are pushed back, we will start again. If we are pushed back a third time we will start again."
As expected, the Prime Minister followed Mr Bruton in announcing that there would be a total ban on talks between ministers and Sinn Fein "in the absence of a genuine end to this renewed violence". The ban does not rule out continued contacts between officials and Sinn Fein.
The Prime Minister told a Commons united in palpable dismay at the end of the ceasefire that "having ducked and weaved" about the IRA and its methods, Sinn Fein now had to "decide whether they are a front for the IRA or a democratic political party committed to the ballot, not the bullet".
In his television broadcast last night the Prime Minister said that the elected body he proposed would "exist for a short time only and for one principal purpose - to lead directly to negotiations".
The Irish government for its part was encouraged that Mr Major's open- mindedness could yet lead to the "proximity talks" - possibly as a precursor to elections - which Dublin has been seeking on the model of the talks in Dayton, Ohio, that produced the Bosnia settlement.
Mr Major also underlined his determination to examine any option for peace in his response to an unexpected intervention in yesterday's debate - a proposal from John Hume, the SDLP leader, for referendums on both sides of the Irish border, asking people "if they totally disapproved of violence and if they wanted all parties to start dialogue".
Mr Hume said he utterly condemned the "terrible atrocity" of Friday's bomb and added that the outcome of a referendum could not be ignored by the IRA "or anyone else". He added that it should put two questions. "One: do you totally and absolutely and unequivocally disapprove of violence for any purpose whatsoever on this island? And number two: do you want to see all parties brought to the table to begin the process of dialogue to create lasting stability?"
Mr Major, who said that he would not be intensifying talks with the leaders of all the constitutional parties, told Mr Hume: "There is more than one option that lies before us at the moment and we are examining those options."
He promised on television last night to "hunt down the criminals who murdered innocent people last Friday".
After the bomb, pages 2,3 Leading article, page 18
Letters, page 18
Andrew Marr, page 19Reuse content