The Prime Minister went his furthest yet since the 1993 Downing Street declaration in making clear his personal attachment to Northern Ireland as a part of the UK and stating emphatically that it was was "inconceivable" that British citizenship would be removed from those "who cherish it".
The Prime Minister's decision to take head-on the interpretation of extracts in this week's Times account and the selection of leaked extracts of the draft document came amid further Unionist accusations last night that Whitehall and Dublin were "plotting" to "prepare the way for a united Ireland".
The already raw sensibilities of Unionists were further inflamed yesterday when John Bruton, the Irish premier, suggested that Britain should follow the example of Dublin by allowing the early release of republican paramilitary prisoners. Mr Bruton, who strongly defended the decision by Dublin to release another five prisoners early, said it would be "helpful" for Britain to go down the same route and added: "It builds confidence when people can see that the abandonment of violence brings rewards for families who are separated from their loved ones." The Taoiseach hinted that the Irish government was pressing their case with the British government in "ongoing discussions".
Mr Major said in his speech to a Conservative Way Forward dinner last night that "the people of Northern Ireland are British. But they also have long had the right, if they so choose, to citizenship of the Republic. We have no intention of changing this."
Although Mr Major did not contest the authenticity of the extracts published this week, he went out of his way to challenge their interpretation, insisting that it was not true that a new cross-border body would "make policy" towards the European Union. He insisted that there were would be no "joint authority" or "joint intervention" if cross border co-operation defaulted. Mr Major said that "if problems arose, and I naturally hope that they won't, it would be the United Kingdom government's responsibility to deal with them and our's alone."
In a further attempt to allay fears about what Unionists see as the Government's adoption of neutrality towards the Union with Northern Ireland in the Downing Street declaration, Mr Major repeated that there would be no change to the status of the province without consent underpinned in a referendum, adding that he was "emphatically" not going to be a "persuader" for a united Ireland.
While ministers have taken some comfort from the more muted response to the leaks from the small Progressive Unionist Party, which has links with loyalist paramilitaries, the official Ulster Unionists continued yesterday to keep up the pressure on London. John Taylor, the UUP MP for Strangford, said: "There can be no doubt now that the present Tory government is plotting with the Eire government to create all-Ireland institutions with executive powers greater than any powers which would be devolved to anew Stormont assembly."
It was intended that the all-Ireland authorities would harmonise affairs between North and South "in order to prepare the way for a united Ireland by consent", he claimed in Lisburn, Co Antrim.
He added that no Unionist "worth his salt" could stand idly by and allow such arrangements to take root.
n Sean Kelly, 21, one of the Shankill Road bombers, was treated in hospital for head injuries after being attacked by loyalist inmates at the Maze prison yesterday. Kelly has just started a 25-year sentence for his part in the IRA fish shop attack which left nine Protestants dead.