Fumbling towards Ulster peace: Momentum grows for accord by Christmas, but prime ministers have still to address central issue at Dublin meeting today

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The Independent Online
JOHN MAJOR goes to Dublin today for crucial talks with Albert Reynolds, with the British and Irish governments apparently still unable to bridge the gap over an acceptable formula for the future of Ulster.

Dublin sources said the Taoiseach would tell Mr Major that a formal declaration recognising the right of the Irish people, north and south, to express their right of self- determination is vital before an agreement can be reached.

There was evidence that the London and Dublin sides were stepping up the search for agreement before Christmas, to persuade the IRA to give peace talks a chance by extending a Christmas ceasefire into a cessation of violence.

Downing Street confirmed that Mr Major wanted to 'keep the momentum going'. The failure to reach agreement on a communique led to the downgrading of today's meeting from a summit, but it will be followed by more meetings.

The two leaders are planning to hold further talks in the margins of the European summit in Brussels next weekend. They have agreed to follow up with another meeting, within days, in London. That timetable hinted at an urgency which Mr Major had been resisting. London sources remain less optimistic than Mr Reynolds about his expressed hopes of 'peace by Christmas' and said they were prepared for a 'long haul', but Mr Major's aides made it clear it would not be for want of trying.

Dublin believes an expected IRA Christmas ceasefire could offer the basis for a permanent cessation of hostilities and that this opportunity should not be squandered by high- level procrastination.

The Irish government is insistent that progress on key issues to underpin a peace strategy must be made this month. A senior source said: 'Albert Reynolds is not letting things fritter away. Once it goes beyond Christmas it becomes problematic - the window of opportunity may then be closed.'

But it was clear last night that differences between the two governments go beyond the single issue of self-determination for Ulster. A spokesman for the Taoiseach emphasised that self-determination 'is not the whole ball of wax'.

On the eve of the meeting in Dublin Castle, the Prime Minister sought to ease the anxieties of the Ulster Unionists by reinforcing the Government's commitment to the Union while it commanded the consent of the majority.

In the Commons, Mr Major and Sir Patrick Mayhew, the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, refused to embrace fully the Reynolds formula, that the Irish people should have a right to national self- determination based on consent, freely given, north and south, in parallel referendums.

Paddy Ashdown, the Liberal Democrat leader, urged Mr Major to take 'further risks for peace' by accepting that formula. Mr Major replied: 'There is one fundamental point and that is that Northern Ireland's status as part of the UK will not change without the freely expressed consent of the people of Northern Ireland.'

In an apparent attempt to embarrass the Government before the talks, Sinn Fein last night released more than 100 of pages of documents purporting to detail contacts with government representatives. One was said by Martin McGuinness, the Sinn Fein official, to cover Cabinet committee meetings called to discuss the IRA's offer of a two-week ceasefire last May. Downing Street later said that account was inaccurate and contained fabricated quotations.

A soldier was shot dead by the IRA in a sniper attack yesterday. He died in the village of Keady, south Armagh, in the latest of a series of one-shot killings by the IRA.

Sinn Fein documents 3

Inside Parliament 10

Conor Cruise O'Brien 20

(Photograph omitted)