The meeting, at which Mr Major shook hands with John White, a convicted murderer and former member of the Ulster Defence Association, outraged Lord Fitt, the SDLP peer, who said Mr White had been jailed for a "brutal sadistic cold-blooded murder" of a close friend, Senator Paddy Wilson, and Mr Wilson's girlfriend. They were stabbed to death in a frenzied attack.
But Mr Major's decision to "take a risk" was praised by Michael Mates, the former Northern Ireland minister who has acted as go-between for the Government with the IRA: "If it is going to be resolved and if former terrorists on both sides are going to be involved in a solution, some exceedingly nasty people on both sides are going to have to be spoken to."
The Tory MP said it was important to highlight the difference between the Loyalists paramilitaries who had declared a ceasefire which was holding, and the IRA, which had resumed the violence.
Mr Major's invitation to the Loyalists might persuade the IRA that if they called a ceasefire they could be also brought into the talks. "If a ceasefire had existed on both sides, it is ... possible the Prime Minister would be seeing the IRA terrorists as well," Mr Mates said.
The meeting was intended to put pressure on Sinn Fein and the IRA to resume the ceasefire, enabling Sinn Fein to join the all-party talks, this week nearing a conclusion before a break until September.
At the meeting with Mr White were David Ervine of the Progressive Unionist Party (PUP), a former member of the Ulster Volunteer Force who was jailed for 11 years in 1975 for transporting a bomb with intent to endanger life, Gary McMichael, leader of the Ulster Democratic Party, whose father was an Ulster Defence Association commander murdered by the IRA, and Hugh Smyth, the PUP's leader.
Mr White, prisons spokesman for the UDP, was given a life sentence for the murder of Wilson, an SDLP Stormont senator, and his girlfriend in 1973. Responsibility for the murder, which shocked many in Unionist communities, was later claimed by the Ulster Freedom Fighters (UFF), which has links with the UDP.
Mr White, who served 14 years and left prison on a life licence, is described as a shadowy character, a "hard man" who can help keep Loyalist paramilitaries on track. One observer said: "With his track- record White can get Loyalist hard-liners to accept things few others could."
Mr McMichael, 27, is a life- insurance salesman with no paramilitary track-record; his father, John McMichael, a well-known Loyalist hard man, was murdered by the IRA in 1987.
Mr McMichael said: "It is very welcome that recognition has been given by the Prime Minister to the role which the Loyalist parties have played in the last two years. It is quite clear that the message sent to Sinn Fein by this meeting is that there are rewards for engaging in the democratic process, there are rewards for moving from violence, there are rewards in moving towards peace."
However, Mr Ervine, spokesman for the PUP, is a far more influential political figure than Mr White and, probably, Mr McMichael.
Mr Ervine, 43, from east Belfast, was arrested in 1975 for possessing explosives and served five years of an 11-year sentence in the Maze Prison. There he underwent a political transformation and on his release joined the PUP to push for a non-violent solution to the troubles.
Widely seen as the most articulate and thoughtful of the Loyalist fringe politicians, Mr Ervine has won some praise from all sides for his honesty and apparent willingness to negotiate for peace while still being able to reflect and influence UVF paramilitary thinking.
However, many Nationalists regard his relatively open stance as "too good to be true" and some wonder if he is being used by the British government.
Mr Smyth, also at the meeting, is an former lord mayor of Belfast and long-serving city councillor, who used to sit as an independent. The PUP is seen as representing the Unionist working classes.Reuse content