Labour warns Tories on Ulster

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Labour last night made its first public criticism of the Government's policy on Ulster. Marjorie Mowlam, the party's Northern Ireland spokeswoman, stressed her party's determination to maintain bipartisan support but said ministers had made an "error of judgement" by not publishing detailed proposals on the working of an elected peace forum and the ground rules for subsequent all-party talks.

Her cautious intervention came as Labour launched an initiative to keep the peace process on track. She called on the Government to make its plans public amid nationalist fears that the single-seat majority it faces after tomorrow's Staffordshire South East by-election could force the Tories to make concessions to the Ulster Unionists, who may hold the balance of power in the Commons.

Dr Mowlam said she opposed any attempt to "enhance the role" of the 110- member forum from which negotiators will be chosen. While John Major has promised that the forum will not become a Stormont-style assembly, nationalists fear that a unionist-dominated forum could be given excessive influence over the talks.

Dr Mowlam is pressing the Government to publish its detailed proposals to allay such fears and she warned last night that the "forum must be entirely separate from the negotiations and make no contribution to the negotiations unless specifically asked to do so by the negotiators themselves".

The initiative is significant because the Government is counting on Labour to support the legislation for the elections set for 30 May. Labour is not threatening to withhold its support for the Bill, but wants its views taken into account.

Dr Mowlam, who also released detailed questions about the process which she put to Sir Patrick Mayhew, the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland on 2 April, said: "Bipartisanship is more crucial than ever. With the Government on a knife-edge we must continue to put the peace process above party politics."

In a separate move, Dr Mowlam is proposing an independent body to examine the case - and possible routes - for further marches in Northern Ireland in the wake of Monday's stand-off between loyalists and the RUC in Belfast. Such a body would not have statutory force but would advise on the handling of key marches.

The RUC is pinning its hopes for a peaceful marching season on year-long grass roots talks between nationalist and loyalist communities. As police and politicians appealed for calm groups from both sides of the divide sought to avert trouble by compromising over the routes and frequencies of the marches.

With more than 2,500 parades due to take place, the potential for trouble is great. However, one RUC officer said yesterday: "We are hoping that the community negotiations will reach settlements acceptable by both sides. "Behind the scenes, and in spite of all the shouting since Monday, negotiations at local level have been taking place aimed at finding compromises. We are not initiating these talks, but we have been invited by the communities to attend." Last year, the nationalist Ormeau Road was one of the routes along which tension was greatest. However, violence was averted because nationalist residents' organisations and loyalist marchers negotiated a reduction in the number of parades from about 17 to just two. It is understood similar negotiations are taking place in the other most likely trouble spots, along the routes of Orange Lodge marches in July, of Apprentice Boys' marches in Londonderry in August and a Royal Black Perceptory parade in Scarva the same m onth. There were no further incidents yesterday, despite a number of small Orange marches. The next test comes on 28 April when another parade is due to pass along the Ormeau Road. Until then, communities on both sides of the divide will hold their breath.