Major engages in 'quiet diplomacy'

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The Independent Online
Hard bargaining is now going on behind the scenes between John Major and the party leaders over the plans for an elected body for Northern Ireland.

In spite of the initial hostility by the nationalist leaders including John Hume, leader of the Social Democratic and Labour Party, British ministers are confident they will be able to find "the broad agreement" for an elected body which the Mitchell report said would be needed if it was to work.

The broad outline for the elections is already emerging. The British government is adamant that the body will be short-lived with the task of appointing teams to carry out all-party negotiations on the future of Northern Ireland. Its aim is to get round the impasse to all- party talks over the IRA's refusal to begin disarming.

The Ulster Unionists are ready to sit down with Gerry Adams and the Sinn Fein negotiators, after the elections, if the disarmament process begins at the same time. Unionists would prefer the elections to be based on about nine constituencies. That is opposed by the SDLP, which fears it would guarantee a dominant voice to the Unionists, and polarise opinion in Ulster between nationalists and loyalists.

At his talks in Downing Street, Mr Major found that even some members of Ian Paisley's hard line Democratic Unionist Party want to bring Mr Hume's party into the fold, by agreeing to a compromise over the composition of the seats.

The elections are likely to be based on the European Parliamentary boundary which covers the whole of Northern Ireland. That would enable the voters to choose from a long list of candidates by single transferable vote, and it would emphasise the purpose of the elected body was to deal with an all-Ulster problem. The Ulster Unionists insist only those who stand can join the negotiating teams.

The Irish Republic is holding out for all-party talks before elections take place, but is being dragged along into the process. The Unionists believe the SDLP will resist until the deadline for all-party talks at the end of February has passed.

Dublin remains suspicious of the Ulster Unionists. David Trimble has appeared to indicate that he would not engage in all-party talks, even after the elections, unless the IRA began decommissioning first.

The British government is convinced that Mr Trimble will go along with parallel talks, while decommissioning is being tackled. John Bruton, the Irish Prime Minister, underlined Irish anxieties about the plan by urging Britain to stick to the report of the international body under former US senator George Mitchell. Sir Patrick Mayhew, Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, said that the plan would still meet the Mitchell proposals.

The problem still remains the IRA. The Mitchell Commission said it would not begin decommissioning before all party talks, but the DUP believes it will not start to disarm until it is close to securing a united Ireland.