Major braced for Unionist fury

Prime Minister in appeal not to let chance of peace `slip away' as anger overshadows launch of framework document
Click to follow
The Independent Online
John Major made an emotional appeal to angry Ulster Unionists in the Commons yesterday not to let the chance of peace "slip away" by rejecting out of hand the publication today of the historic Anglo-Irish plans for the future of Northern Ireland.

His appeal was furiously denounced as "blackmail" by Ulster Unionist leaders, in a backlash that threatened to overshadow the launch in Belfast today of the framework document on Northern Ireland by Mr Major and John Bruton, the Irish Prime Minister.

But ministers are already braced for turbulence that could last several months before all-party talks, which they remain optimistic will eventually take place on the framework document and a second on a new Northern Ireland Assembly. Both were unanimously approved by the Cabinet yesterday.

As Mr Major flew to Northern Ireland for talks with Mr Bruton last night, ministers said they expected a lengthy series of discussions between the Northern Ireland Office and the constitutional parties before round-table talks began.

Mr Major yesterday told MPs his mind was open about the mechanisms to achieve peace, attempting to reassure Unionists that the proposals would be open to consultation. "The objective I have is to ensure that what has been thus far a ceasefire is able to be turned into a permanent peace," he said.

James Molyneaux and Ian Paisley accused the Government of putting a gun to their heads by questioning their support for the peace process.

Mr Paisley said: "That is an immoral question because we have not been waging war...To say to the democratically elected MPs that if you don't agree to this document and you are for war and if a war happens you will be responsible for it - that is blackmail.

"The Government is using the gun of the IRA in the ear of the Unionist elected representatives to blackmail them into accepting something that is for the distruction of their heritage and of the union itself. We are not going to be railroaded...This document is a declaration of war on the Union and the Unionist people." In spite of their rhetoric, both Unionist leaders said that they were prepared to enter talks on their own proposals while insisting that they would not enter joint negotiations on the London -Dublin plans for cross-border co-operation.

The protests from Unionists came as little surprise to ministers who, acknowledging the risk involved, are convinced that conditions are more favourable than those that undermined previous attempts at political reconciliation, including the ill-starred Sunningdale agreement in 1973.

Although ministers are making no predictions about the timing of a long- term agreement, to be put to referendums in Northern Ireland and the Republic, they hope it could happen before a general election. Mr Major will make it clear today that the documents cannot impose a settlement but that they can "facilitate" the all-party agreement on which a deal would depend.

Ministers believe several factors apply that did not in 1973 and in 1985, when Margaret Thatcher struck the Anglo-Irish agreement: the institution envisaged for cross-border co-operation will be answerable to the Northern Ireland assembly; Northern Ireland has enjoyed more than five months of peace; and changes are expected to the Irish constitution to withdraw the territorial claim to Northern Ireland unless a majority in the province consent to change. The rights of Unionists in the cross-border body would be protected by a requirement for unanimous agreement.

Ministers have argued to backbenchers that earlier attempts at a political settlement were bedevilled by the fact that only the Government and the Unionists believed Northern Ireland should remain in the United Kingdom. Now, they say, it is accepted in the Republic, by nationalists in the North, by the Catholic Church and in the United States, that the status of Northern Ireland can only change with the consent of the majority.

Unionist blueprint, page 2

Inside Parliament, page 10