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First victim may be Major's government

The proposals contained in the Framework for Peace are not about to be implemented. They will be rejected by the Unionists because of the proposed North/South institutions which contain the substance, though not the wording, of "joint authority". And when that happens, the Framework's proposed Assembly for Northern Ireland will not come into being.

Are we then to go "back to square one", as suggested by Dick Spring? No. Under the honeyed words in which this document cloyingly abounds there is a veiled threat to the Unionists in paragraph 47: though they are free to reject these proposals they are going to get something worse if they do.

Paragraph 47 runs: "In the event that devolved institutions in Northern Ireland ceased to operate and direct rule from Westminster was reintroduced, the British Government agree that other arrangements would be made to implement the commitment to promote co-operation at all levels between the people, North and South, representing both traditions in Ireland as agreed by the two governments in the Joint Declaration and to ensure that the co-operation that had been developed through the North/South body be maintained."

If the Unionists reject the Framework, they are going to get direct rule from London in co-operation with Dublin, a form of "joint authority" in which the representatives of the majority in Northern Ireland will have no say. This "joint authority" will be worked both by Dublin and London to bring about a united Ireland.

Paragraph 47 will be read by the Sinn-Fein-IRA leadership with satisfaction. Sinn Fein has repeatedly called on the Government to abandon its commitment to the "Unionist veto". That is what Mr Major's government is doing. I strongly suspect paragraph 47 was worked out between the IRA - rather than Dublin - and British officials. It represents the IRA's price for not resuming the armed struggle. The payment of this price makes it more likely loyalist paramilitaries will end their ceasefire, concluded on the assumption, now invalid, that "the Union is safe".

For the IRA, some other Irish nationalists and possibly for some British officials, a resumption of loyalist violence while the IRA's "cessation" remains intact, would be a satisfactory outcome. The British could be less inhibited in crushing a Unionist uprising than they have been with the nationalist one.

This is a plausible path to a united Ireland. But neither Dublin or the people of the Republic actually want a united Ireland containing one million angry Unionists. The Republic's negotiators no doubt feel they have been successful in getting so much nationalist substance in to the Framework. But the people whom those negotiators represent may live to regret that success.

Some nationalists would enjoy the spectacle of the Brits clobbering the Prods. But when the British withdraw, and Dublin is left in possession of a united Ireland imposed by British force, second thoughts would follow among the Catholic population. There will be a lot more dead people, Catholic and Protestant, if what is adumbrated in this so-called Framework for Peace - especially paragraph 47 - is implemented.

None of it may be, for the first victim of the Framework may be Mr Major's government. It is probable James Molyneaux is trying to get from Tony Blair guarantees that Labour will never try to impose on Northern Ireland any settlement not freely accepted by the majority. If Labour provides that guarantee, Mr Major's government will not last long enough to begin to fulfill the threat latent in this Framework.

I hope the damage latent in this Framework may not go beyond the purely political sphere, and that its only victims may be Mr Major and his colleagues who assented to proposals which could have destroyed Northern Ireland, without putting anything more tolerable in its place.