and COLIN BROWN
John Major and John Bruton were last night urgently taking steps to clear last-minute stumbling blocks in the hope of being able today to announce a summit aimed at rescuing the peace process ruptured by the spate of IRA bombings.
Mr Major made clear for the first time that he was prepared to set a date for all-party talks on the future of Northern Ireland as efforts to agree a joint Anglo-Irish communique intensified in London and Dublin last night.
The Prime Minister told John Hume, leader of the Social Democratic and Labour Party (SDLP) that he was prepared to set a fixed timetable for round table negotiations - regarded as essential by Dublin and nationalist politicians if there is to be any hope of securing a new IRA ceasefire.
The new move came in advance of a telephone call last night between Mr Major and John Bruton, the Irish Prime Minister, designed to clear the way for a summit today and kick start the complex multi-stage process leading to all-party talks. Contingency plans were under way to delay Mr Major's departure for the Far East this evening, in the event of a summit.
One difficulty was over the wording of the explicit guarantee which will have to be given before Sinn Fein can enter talks. Unionists have been insisting that there must not only be a restoration of the ceasefire but a clear commitment from the republicans that they will stand by the Mitchell report's requirement on them to renounce violence permanently.
Ulster Unionist leaders last night met the Government chief whip, Alastair Goodlad, in the first faltering attempt to restore relations with the UUP after they plunged to a new low in the wake of the party's decision to oppose the Government in Monday night's knife-edge vote on the Scott report. The depth of the problem was underlined last night when John Taylor, the UUP's deputy leader, implied that Mr Major could not count on it to prop up the Government if it lost its majority, telling BBC TV's Newsnight: "This present government is collapsing... it is in its dying months. It is simply a matter of time when we get a new government for the United Kingdom."
And as Mr Major reaffirmed that he had been determined not to make deals with Unionists in order to win Monday's vote, Downing Street made no effort to distance itself from the charge by Sir Patrick Mayhew, the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, that the UUP had sought a "clandestine deal" in return for their support.
This was fiercely denied by an angry David Trimble, the Ulster Unionist leader who said: "It's quite obvious some ministers were disappointed with the way we voted and came out, putting a heavy prejudicial spin to try to get back at us. It is a petty form of revenge by small minded people."
He targeted his criticism at ministers, not Mr Major. "Our relationship with the Northern Ireland office has never been terribly good... We have done our best to keep good relations with the Government. We will continue to do so."
Against this difficult background the draft communique passing between London and Dublin last night left open some of the most difficult questions - including the form of elections to the "peace convention", from which negotiating teams will be selected. This, along with whether there should also be a referendum on both sides of the border, will now be decided in pre-election "high-intensity" talks.
But the draft communique is expected to set alternative dates - 7 weeks or 12 weeks away from the beginning of the process, depending on the electoral system chosen.
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