Election deal could save Ulster peace

Call for Dublin to back UK plan
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The Independent Online
The British government moved last night to try to break the deadlock on Ulster peace talks when a Cabinet committee chaired by John Major approved a compromise system of elections to a new peace forum in late May. The Government will today seek Dublin's support for the new formula to secure peace talks by 10 June.

Although details were being kept secret last night pending discussions between the two governments today, the proposals are thought to include a "hybrid" electoral system designed to maximise the support from the Northern Ireland parties. This is expected to be coupled with a toughening of the demands on Sinn Fein to discuss decommissioning when the all-party negotiations begin in June.

The Government is hoping to finalise the proposals at full meeting of the Cabinet tomorrow, and they would then be published with a Commons statement later in the afternoon.

The main option discussed last night is for representatives to be elected from each of the 18 parliamentary constituencies by the proportional system of a single transferable vote, topped up with a list of party nominees elected on a province-wide basis. This could produce a 110-member forum from which a much smaller number of negotiators would be selected.

The new package will be discussed by John Major and John Bruton on the telephone today - and by Sir Patrick Mayhew, the Northern Ireland Secretary, and Dick Spring, the Irish Foreign Minister at a meeting in Belfast.

The promise of all-party talks is the only hope for rescuing the peace plan and persuading the IRA to resume its ceasefire. Last night a Cabinet committee met for more than two hours in an effort to resolve deep differences between the parties over how to elect their representatives for the talks.

The Government was having to steer a delicate path to avoid alienating the Ulster Unionists, whose nine votes in the Commons could play a crucial role in deciding Mr Major's survival. At the same time, an electoral system unacceptable to Dublin and the Northern Ireland nationalist community had threatened to jeopardise the two governments' chances of beginning the talks before the promised deadline.

Mr Major has come under strong pressure from the Ulster Unionists - and some Tory backbenchers - to use the existing 18 parliamentary constituencies in Ulster with five members in each being elected to the forum.

By contrast, both the nationalist Social Democratic and Labour Party and Ian Paisley's Democratic Unionists have been pressing for a single constituency system from which the 90 successful candidates would be chosen from one Province-wide ballot paper.

Dublin has been urging the Government to back the single constituency system to win the confidence of the nationalist community.

But both Mr Bruton and Mr Spring have floated the possibility of a "hybrid" system, combining the electoral list favoured by the nationalists and the Unionists' demands for the elections on 18 constituencies. David Trimble, the Ulster Unionist's leader, had earlier warned that such a compromise would not work.

He said the list system would be open to legal challenge, forcing the Government to delay the elections until late in the year. But a firm restatement of the need for Sinn Fein to get into serious talks about decommissioning of arms at the outset of the negotiations, could, ministers hope, help to allay some Unionist hostility.

The Government's chances of securing Unionist support for a compromise had been undermined by a separate but related row over the publication of an Anglo-Irish consultation document outlining the framework for the all-party talks. Mr Trimble told Sir Patrick at an acrimonious meeting yesterday that he believed the document was issued to "appease" the nationalists.