Dublin softens on Ulster poll

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The Irish government took a long step towards helping to revive the Northern Ireland peace process yesterday when the Taoiseach, John Bruton, formally committed his government to helping to build elections into the existing negotiating machinery.

Dublin has until now been strongly opposed to making participation in elections a precondition for entering all-party talks. Yesterday Mr Bruton outlined a compromise that envisages elections flowing from the "proximity talks" favoured by Dublin. He and John Major are planning a summit next week to repair the shattered peace process.

Officials from both governments will today meet in Dublin to thrash out a deal over compromise proposals put forward. British ministerial sources confirmed that London was prepared to negotiate with Dublin over the idea of "proximity" talks before the elections. However, the Ulster Unionists were unwilling to go into talks before the elections.

John Taylor, deputy leader of the Ulster Unionists, said his party still needed answers to the key questions over the decommissioning of IRA weapons.

In spite of the movement by the Irish government, John Hume, the leader of the nationalist Social Democratic and Labour Party, dismayed Dublin sources when he appeared to rule out his party's participation in elections.

"Electing 90 people to negotiate the future isn't going to work. It ended in disaster before and made the problem worse," Mr Hume said.

Opening a two-day emergency Dail debate on the breakdown of the Northern Ireland ceasefire, Mr Bruton said he had suggested to the Prime Minister that they consider whether and how "an elective process, which is broadly acceptable, and which followed from proximity talks might lead directly and speedily, without equivocation, to all-party negotiations".

He welcomed Mr Major's statement making clear that mandates provided by elections "could lead straight and straight away to negotiations". But he warned that the elective element could not be imposed or taken as a foregone conclusion given the "justifiable fears" of nationalist politicians that elections could inflame sectarian tension.

Mr Bruton also praised the idea for dual referendums presented by Mr Hume to the Commons on Monday, which he said would help secure non-violence by showing the only mandate any party had was for exclusively peaceful methods.

The Taoiseach also held open the possibility of taking up President Bill Clinton's offer of help in restoring the ceasefire, made to Dublin last Friday night in the wake of the London bomb.

Mr Bruton was received in hushed silence by members of the Dail chamber as he expressed sympathy for the Canary Wharf bomb victims.

Speaking of those killed by the bomb, the Taoiseach asked pointedly: "What did these two young men ever do to Ireland, or do against Irish republicans, to deserve such a death? Who has a right to decide that Inan Bashir and John Jefferies should diefor Ireland?"

The Opposition Fianna Fail leader, Bertie Ahern, said Gerry Adams, the Sinn Fein leader, should get "help consistent with democratic principles" in his efforts to restore the IRA ceasefire "but this time it really must be for good".

But in a forceful critique he said there were "enormous contradictions" in the IRA and Sinn Fein positions. In the past, the IRA had a reputation for keeping its word and in 1994 all sides in the Dail had accepted its word that the ceasefire was permanen t. Yet the IRA "have treated some of the leaders of their political movement with contempt".

Mr Ahern said that the IRA's discipline "has been more an ally during the peace process than an enemy" and republicans should now avoid splits during internal debate in pursuit of a restored ceasefire. He said he understood the political frustration that had built up, but insisted violence led nowhere, and the IRA statement had been "short on defined aim, or the character of what may follow".

It was clearly a provocation to other paramilitaries, and he hoped they would firmly resist that.