Low-key theme to historic day

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The Independent Online
It was an unprepossessing place in which to begin a day which everyone seemed to agree was historic. The Balmoral Conference Centre in south Belfast - with its blue felt walls, silvered chrome fittings and reinforced glass fire doors - was one of those anonymous venues in which groups of regional sales reps like to gather.

Its functional ambience was well-suited to the bare business-like approach which the British and Irish prime ministers chose to adopt in presenting the document which they hope will serve as the basis for a permanent end to 25 years of violence in the province.

John Major then went on to a second press conference to announce his proposals for a new Northern Ireland assembly. He set out its terms with a matter-of-fact confidence and then fielded a large number of questions - many of them charged with emotion or hidden agendas.

It was John Major at his best, his complete mastery of the issues revealing that this was not a subject on which he was merely well-briefed but on which - as with the Maastricht treaty - he had taken a key personal role.

Confident without being cocky, his command of the detail was such that it inspired one prominent Tory, otherwise sceptical towards his leadership talents, to observe: "He'd make a rather good Northern Ireland Secretary."

It was not the stuff of stirring rhetoric. His style was low-key. The word "consent" was never far from his lips. He constantly hoped that response to the document would be "mature". His metaphors about hurdles and pushing carts uphill were uninspired.

No-one could say the same about the response he provoked. "A declaration of war on the union, a death warrant for the 1920 Act which is the basis of the union," thundered Ian Paisley.

The usually more liberal Official Unionist, Ken Maginnis, called it "a horrendous document ... written totally in the nationalist idiom" and spoke of a "signal to the IRA: when you recommence your campaign don't bomb London, concentrate your efforts on Northern Ireland".

It was a reaction made flesh by the Ulster Unionist MP David Trimble, who marched out of a Channel 4 lunchtime discussion when it took a phone call from the Sinn Fein spokesman, Martin McGuinness. He tore the microphone from his lapel and slammed it onto the table, proclaiming that he would not be tricked into sharing a platform with apologists for the IRA.

Later, back in London, the Prime Minister made a statement to a solemn House of Commons. MPs from all parties responded - even right-wing Tory pro-Unionist back benchers - with unqualified support and congratulations.

The response of the Northern Ireland MPs was restrained too. John Hume's reservation in his welcome for the framework document was no doubt tactical. But the subdued response of the Unionist MPs seemed one of shell-shock and sadness.

Ken Maginnis reiterated his bitter suggestion about the message the IRA should draw from Mr Major's approach. But he could not work himself into a wrath of indignation.

An hour on the Prime Minister sat down, relieved that the process seemed still to be on track. But where, he must have wondered, were the two Unionist leaders, Mr Paisley and Mr Molyneaux? And what were they plotting?

Paul Vallely