Major to face down Unionists: Ulster talks given top priority by Prime Minister as he warns that no party has veto on peace process

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JOHN MAJOR stepped up the momentum of the Northern Ireland peace process by making it clear for the first time yesterday that he was prepared to table new proposals with or without all-party agreement to fresh round-table talks.

The Prime Minister used his opening speech to the new session of Parliament to put Northern Ireland at the top of his agenda and deliver what was interpreted as a clear warning to Ian Paisley's hard-line Democratic Unionist Party that they could not block his accelerated efforts to reach a settlement.

Mr Major moved the conflict to 'the head of our priorities', amplifying the reference to Northern Ireland in the Queen's Speech. He gave a clear warning that he would allow 'no party or organisation to veto progress'.

Downing Street has previously said it would table new constitutional proposals only if enough progress had been made for all the parties to convene at a conference.

In a passage which overshadowed his outline of a populist 'back to basics' legislative programme, centred on law and order and deregulation, he underlined his determination to build on the 'palpable mood for peace' in Northern Ireland.

The Government was simultaneously seeking 'a permanent end to violence' - underlined by its offer, repeated yesterday, to Sinn Fein of a place at the negotiating table if the IRA renounced violence for good - and a political settlement.

At present ministers were talking bilaterally to the constitutional parties because a premature attempt to convene a round-table conference would be 'counter-productive'. But the Prime Minister added: 'If at an appropriate time, it will help the process to put proposals of our own on the table, we shall do so.'

Downing Street sources, freely indicating that this was a shift in the Government's position, said such proposals, if made, would cover all three 'strands' included in previous talks - internal democracy for Northern Ireland, the North-South relationship, and that between London and Dublin.

Although the Northern Ireland Office is known to be concerned that Dublin has yet to come forward with detailed plans of how it would amend Articles II and III of the constitution - laying claim to sovereignty over Northern Ireland - one Downing Street source said that London and Dublin were 'now borrowing each other's language'.

But in a clear effort to prevent unrealistic expectations of the summit meeting next month between Mr Major and Albert Reynolds, the Irish Taoiseach, the sources emphasised Mr Major's remark that he hoped for progress 'before, during and after' the meeting.

Mr Major told the Commons that he could not accept the feeling among some people 'that the dead must be endlessly avenged. That any accommodation with the opposing viewpoint would betray those who have died.' He added: 'The right memorial to the dead is, surely, to make sure no one else is killed.'

Any proposals would almost certainly include earlier ideas for a power-sharing assembly, joint executive boards on issues of common interest between North and South such as trade, tourism and security, and a replacement Anglo-Irish agreement linked to the abandonment of Articles II and III.

Downing Street declined last night to encourage speculation that this would be in the final event aimed at a referendum in the province, and one would certainly not be called without the support of the Ulster Unionists' leader James Molyneaux - which is by no means guaranteed.

Calling the new Criminal Justice Bill the 'centrepiece' of the new session, a clearly invigorated Mr Major challenged Labour to support it and added: 'I share the view of most people that the balance has been tilted for too long in favour of the criminal and away from the victim.'

John Smith, the Labour leader, scorned Mr Major's theme, asking: 'If now we have to go back to basics, what has been happening over 14 years of Conservative government?'

Coming less than a fortnight before the Budget, the Queen's Speech omitted the ritual reference to progressive reduction of tax. But further social security legislation is certain, restricting invalidity benefit, and making employers meet more of the costs of sick pay. The deregulation Bill is not expected to begin its passage until early next year; ministers have yet to agree its final scope.

Although the programme is designed to ensure Mr Major a united party, some Cabinet ministers fear the deregulation Bill - aimed at widespread removal of red tape in many departments - could be contentious.

The speech and reaction, pages 6, 7

Peace rallies, page 10

Leading article, page 17

Andrew Marr, page 19

Main Bills in The Queen's Speech

Reform of criminal justice system

Deregulation and abolition of industrial red tape

Changes in administration of police and magistrates courts

Extending Sunday shopping hours

Statutory scrutiny of Secret Service and GCHQ

Local government changes in Scotland and Wales

Paving Bill for environmental protection agencies

Privatisation of British Coal