Major tries to mend bridges with Unionists

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The Independent Online
Loyalist leaders will meet the Prime Minister, John Major tomorrow at Downing Street at the same time as ministers seek to restore relations with the Ulster Unionists following the last week's vote against the Government in the Commons over the ban on beef exports.

The Loyalist leaders, David Ervine of the Progressive Unionist Party, and Gary McMichael, of the Ulster Democratic Party, will underline their concern about the ceasefire holding on the Loyalist side in spite of the renewed violence by the IRA in London and Ulster.

Ulster Unionist leaders, who last week registered their anger at the Government over the beef crisis, appeared to be hardening their position against accepting Sinn Fein at the round-table talks until the IRA began handing over arms.

The Loyalists have been more forthright than the Unionists in seeking inclusive all-party talks, including Sinn Fein.

Ministers are believed to be working on plans to allow a partial lifting of the export ban for Northern Ireland to put to the European agriculture commissioner, Franz Fischler.

It was the absence of a deal to lift the ban on exports of beef from Ulster herds that led to Unionist MPs voting against the Government, which survived by only one vote.

The pressure on the Government to reach a deal with the Unionists has heightened speculation about the stalled peace talks in Northern Ireland. The Ulster Unionists appeared in policy papers submitted in the last few days to be hardening their stance to insist on the IRA handing over weapons before Sinn Fein could be admitted after a ceasefire.

The Prime Minister is expected to reassure the Loyalist leaders at the meeting tomorrow, which was agreed at their request, that there will be no change in the Government's policy on admitting Sinn Fein to all-party talks. Government sources said last night that Sinn Fein would be admitted after it was made clear the ceasefire was permanent.

The Government is still sceptical about a lasting ceasefire - in spite of rumours about a Christmas peace - but was encouraged by the remarks last week by Sinn Fein's Martin McGuinness suggesting that there should be an "indicative" rather than "rigid" timetable for progress towards a peaceful settlement.