Grass roots make party rethink hard-line attitude

Loyalist politicians soften their anger as voters express desire to pre serve peace talks. David McKittrick reports
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Ulster Unionist politicians moderated their anti-British government tone at the weekend, amid signs that much of the Protestant grass roots favours a less strident line than was last week projected by some Unionist MPs.

Last week's threats to walk away from the Irish peace process and terminate support for John Major's government were replaced with less belligerent hints that the party is prepared to face a snap election and contemplate a deal with Labour.

The political message to the Conservatives was therefore little changed, though delivered in a much more restrained style. Among the grass roots, however, there were signs that the traditional concern to oppose any moves in the direction of Irish unity have been joined by the significant new consideration of preserving the peace process.

This has produced a more cautious attitude which chimes with the apparent desire of the party leader, James Molyneaux, to keep his options open as the British and Irish governments move towards publication of the framework document.

According to Dublin sources, excellent progress had been made at a meeting of senior officials on Thursday, when many textual matters had been cleared up. A number of outstanding issues remain to be settled at ministerial level by the Northern Ireland Secretary, Sir Patrick Mayhew, and the Irish minister for foreign affairs, Dick Spring, but it is said no serious difficulties are envisaged in respect of these.

The Government's apparent determination that there is to be no retreat from the almost-completed document has been welcomed with relief in Dublin. Sources in the Irish capital expressed some satisfaction that in his handling of the events of the week Mr Major had acted in what they viewed in a firm manner which would increase general confidence in the British government.

The Ulster Unionists are anxious to have the "green" elements of the document diluted as much as possible in advance of its publication, which is expected to lead to a protracted period of intense debate on the vision of Northern Ireland's future it is to set out.

Much speculation will centre on whether the Unionists are bluffing in their heavy hints that they are now actively considering a deal with Labour, a tactic which one sceptical observer described as the "Orangemen trying to play the red card".

If Mr Molyneaux has his way, his party will have a number of options when the framework document is published. These range from instantly pulling the plug on the Major government, which he would be personally reluctant to do, to refusing to discuss it oreven, at the softer end of the spectrum, characterising it as distasteful but acceptable as a basis for negotiation.

Over the weekend there were a number of signs that party opinion remained in his favour, despite the assertions of some critics that his "special relationship" with Mr Major had not delivered a more pro-Unionist document.

The debate within the party has been coloured by the now widespread belief that the scent of a leadership challenge is in the air.

Mr Molyneaux responded to this with the comment: "Over the last 15 years I have derived much amusement from reading my extensive file of my own obituaries."

None the less, there is now much discussion in Unionist circles as to possible successors should anti-Molyneaux sentiment develop. The front-runners are generally reckoned to be MPs Willie Ross and John Taylor, with other contenders including MPs Ken Maginnis, the Rev Martin Smyth and David Trimble. There are, however, no signs that Mr Molyneaux has any intention of stepping down at this key juncture.