Ireland: Hume and Blair clash out

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The Independent Online
LABOUR's support for the Government over the Northern Ireland peace process is under strain, following a row between opposition leader Tony Blair and John Hume, leader of the Social Democratic and Labour Party.

The dispute comes as nationalist Ireland prepares to launch a sustained political and diplomatic offensive aimed at changing John Major's mind about making an election the centrepiece of the Irish peace process.

Mr Hume clashed with Mr Blair last week over the Labour leader's backing for the Government's stand on the Irish peace process. The row, which led to Mr Hume walking out of a private meeting, not only poses a risk to the close relationship between the two parties but also threatens to raise tensions within the Labour Party over policy towards Northern Ireland. Several leading MPs have close links with nationalists.

The meeting was later described by one source as a "robust" discussion rather than a "rupture" in relations. One of Mr Blair's allies said the bi-partisan approach will prevail, providing there is "no clear act of breach of good faith".

Although Mr Hume's deputy, Seamus Mallon, stayed behind at the meeting, his own anger about the peace process became evident yesterday. He declared: "He has done the dirty on the Irish government in a very public and humiliating way, and he is well on the way to breaking faith and being at odds with the entire nationalist community in the north of Ireland."

There will be a meeting between Mr Major and Mr Hume on Tuesday, followed by another on Thursday between the Northern Ireland Secretary, Sir Patrick Mayhew, and Irish foreign minister Dick Spring. But the nationalists are already lobbying Washington and Irish-American figures to put pressure on Mr Major to drop the election plan.

The nationalist fear is that the election move represents a complete realignment of British policy towards a more unionist-oriented approach. But even if such fears are exaggerated, it is clear that Anglo-Irish relations have been badly bruised.

Contradicting London's claim that the Irish had been properly informed of Wednesday's announcement, Irish government sources said that on Tuesday night the taoiseach, John Bruton, had told Mr Major "that an election would not be the way to start all-party talks". Mr Major was said to have promised that British ministers would "take the Irish side through any House of Commons statement" before it was made.

Dublin said this was not done and that Mr Major's statement was faxed to the Irish government only about 30 minutes before he delivered it in the Commons.

Any attempt to persuade Mr Major to change his mind looks unlikely to succeed. He has declared his intentions in the most public way, and all sides are aware that the Ulster Unionists, led by David Trimble, view the matter as a fait accompli.

The election move will have the effect of increasing the pressure on Gerry Adams and other Sinn Fein leaders, who in recent months have appeared to be struggling to convince IRA hardliners that the peace process is a worthwhile exercise.

Mr Adams has for many months made entry into all-party talks his party's priority, and Sinn Fein had hoped to see talks start in the month of March. An election would clearly set this timetable back considerably, and increase republican suspicions that the Government is veering towards a unionist line.

Edward Pearce, page 21