and DAVID McKITTRICK
John Major last night sought to heal a damaging rift with John Bruton, the Irish Prime Minister, after British plans for elections to force a breakthrough in the stalled Northern Ireland peace process led to accusations of a bad faith by London.
The disagreement threatened to sour relations between the two prime ministers. Mr Bruton and Dick Spring, the Irish Foreign Minister, accused Mr Major of acting unilaterally, after being caught off-guard. The SDLP leader, John Hume, was wrong-footed, and on the defensive yesterday after appearing to condemn democratic elections, which he warned would lead to a "shouting match".
Sir Patrick Mayhew, the Northern Ireland Secretary, said the prospect of a "shouting match" was better than a "shooting match" and British officials angrily denied the British stance threatened a return to violence.
"Tell that to the IRA. We are working our butts off, trying to find a mechanism that is acceptable to all the parties that gets us into all- party negotiations," said one senior official.
Irish nationalist politicians yesterday remained unconvinced by British assurances that John Major's proposal of a new, elected body was not a device to mollify Unionist MPs and to further postpone all-party negotiations.
Much bitterness was evident both at Mr Major's sudden change of tack and by the way in which he went about it, which was variously described as a political mugging and an ambush.
Dublin sources rejected Downing Street claims that Mr Bruton had been properly informed by Mr Major in advance of his surprise Commons announcement.
The Sinn Fein president, Gerry Adams, meanwhile, said it was opposed to the proposal and accused the Prime Minister of acting in bad faith. "Mr Major rejected the core of the Mitchell report, scuppered the twin- track approach and the February date for all-party talks, and in their place has produced a new pre-condition based on a Unionist proposal."
Downing Street officials were stung by the reaction from the Irish Government and insisted that Mr Bruton had been kept fully informed of the British plans. Mr Major is also seeking an urgent meeting with Mr Hume to overcome SDLP objections to the elections.
While British officials insisted that Mr Major had accepted the main conclusions of the Mitchell commission, Mr Bruton, speaking in Strasbourg yesterday, made it clear he wanted London to stick to the existing timetable.
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