Both Whitehall and the Irish government made clear their firm intention to proceed with the precarious final stages of producing an agreed constitutional formula despite the claims by James Molyneaux, the Ulster Unionist leader, that its prospects had been "wrecked" by the disclosures.
The Prime Minister said in his broadcast there remained a real chance of peace. "My aim is lasting peace. For the first time in 25 years, we have a real chance of achieving this. It should not be thrown away by fears that are unreal and accusations that are untrue. Tonight I ask for time. And I ask for trust."
The extracts of the draft document, leaked to the Times, emphasised the executive powers of planned new cross-border bodies, "harmonisation" between North and South of policies on agriculture, trade, education and health, and cross-border co-operation on European issues.
Mr Major appealed directly to the Unionist people of Northern Ireland "to judge our proposals as a whole", adding: "There is nothing you need fear." Northern Ireland had come a "very long way since the Downing Street Declaration of December 1993 and it must not be allowed to drift backwards".
Amid a growing consensus among British and Irish officials that the selective details of the draft document's contents were leaked with the purpose of derailing the peace process, Sir Robin Butler, the Cabinet Secretary, and senior Northern Ireland officials are expected to discuss today whether to launch an official leak inquiry in Whitehall.
In a statement from Dublin, Dick Spring, the Irish Foreign Minister, condemned the "totally selective and tendentious" leak and made it clear that he was "convinced" that it had not come from any Irish source.He too added that the two governments will "not be deflected from their work".
The governments reinforced their determination to press ahead by giving the go-ahead to a scheduled liaison group meeting between their civil servants today.
Mr Major's broadcast came after an emergency statement in the Commons by Sir Patrick Mayhew, the Northern Ireland Secretary, who stressed the "triple lock" the Northern Ireland people had before any agreement could be reached on an assembly and cross-border bodies. Only if the Ulster parties, the UK Parliament and a referendum in Ulster had agreed could proposals be enacted, he told a sombre House.
Sir Patrick, flanked by Mr Major and Douglas Hurd, the Foreign Secretary, told MPs that in the Times report "I recognise a few phrases lifted highly selectively from a lengthy negotiating text employed in the discussions with the Irish government but upon which the governments have not agreed".
But Mr Molyneaux , bitterly condemning the Government for failing to take the Ulster Unionists into its confidence on the details of the draft, asked why the parties had been "denied an opportunity to at least inject some degree of common sense and realism into the thinking of an obscure liaison group consisting of British and Irish civil servants".
Although Mr Molyneaux had earlier said that the Ulster Unionists were not in the business of bringing down governments "because three or four civil servants had been allowed to run amok", British officials did not attempt to disguise the fragility of thepeace process, and, in the last resort, of the Government's survival, given the Tories' dependence on the Unionists for a Commons majority.
David Trimble, the Ulster Unionist MP for Upper Bann, went further, dismissing as "totally disingenuous" the repeated claims by ministers that no "joint authority" was envisaged.Reuse content