In a strongly-worded speech that had not been cleared in advance with the Labour leader, Mr McNamara pledged Labour support for retention of articles 2 and 3 of the Irish constitution, which date from 1937 and declare that the Irish state consists of the whole island.
Unilateral abandonment of these claims 'would not bring peace to the island of Ireland, because they are at most a symptom of the present discontent, not the cause', Mr McNamara said. Eamon de Valera, who drafted the constitution, had included them in part to encourage the republicans to lay down their arms.
These comments are certain to embarrass the Labour leader, who was forced in July to repudiate a McNamara plan for shared Anglo-Irish sovereignty over the province. John Major challenged Mr Smith to sack his Ulster spokesman but no action was taken, and senior party sources were adamant yesterday that Mr McNamara would not be asked to resign on this occasion.
His latest remarks are also bound to bolster the informal pact between the Tories and Unionists, whose nine MPs saved the Government in a critical division over Maastricht. James Molyneaux, the Ulster Unionist Party leader, said yesterday that they would not seek to overturn the verdict of the last election as long as the Government governed in the interests of the United Kingdom in general 'and of Northern Ireland in particular'.
Formally, Labour has no policy on the articles, stating only that it favours a united Ireland by consent. Unionists have long regarded them as a provocation, while the Irish Foreign Minister, Dick Spring, has spoken tentatively in recent months of the possibility of dropping them if progress were made on peace in the North.
Mr McNamara, who has a reputation for being 'a loose cannon' on Irish policy, pointed out last night that the Irish government did not have the power to amend the constitution; that would require a referendum which would entail grave hazards. 'If a referendum were to be rejected, it would be a ready propaganda gift to Sinn Fein. It is all too easy to predict the claims that Sinn Fein would make to be the one true voice of the Irish people.'
Ulster Unionists, holding their annual conference in Craigavon, Co. Armagh, reacted angrily to the speech. The party secretary, Jim Wilson, accused Labour of being part of a 'pan-nationalist front' with Dublin and the SDLP that was 'trying to drag the province into a united Ireland'.
Mr McNamara, speaking against a motion 'that this house would abandon the constitutional claim to Northern Ireland' being debated at University College, Cork, argued: 'The repeal of articles 2 and 3 would merely heighten the sense of alienation and isolation felt by the nationalists in the North. It would damage the position of the SDLP and would serve to encourage still more extremists in the republican movement.
'To abandon the articles as a unilateral peace offering would be short-sighted and counter-productive,' he insisted. It would do little to assuage the unionists' 'siege mentality'. 'They would not feel any more secure, indeed the likely upsurge in violence would have the opposite effect.'
His view s were flatly rejected by Mr Molyneaux. Dublin didn't understand the attitude of part of the British population to its constitutional claim to the territory of Northern Ireland and seemed to expect a reward for dropping it and complying with international law.
The Ulster Unionists are prepared to travel to Dublin to put their case directly to the Irish government, it was confirmed yesterday. Ken Maginnis, MP for Fermanagh and South Tyrone, will lead a delegation to meet Mr Spring, possibly as soon as next week.
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