Major warns of long and stony road ahead

Reviving peace in Northern Ireland: Compromise is needed to create a climate of trust for negotiations
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Parliamentary Correspondent

John Major underlined to the Commons he was in no mood to let the Northern Ireland peace process be derailed, as all parties supported his determination to begin round-table negotiations on 10 June - with or without Sinn Fein.

"We do not believe the overwhelming desire of the people of Northern Ireland for lasting peace will book further delay," the Prime Minister said in a statement to MPs immediately after his meeting with John Bruton, the Taoiseach. Intensive consultations to pave the way for elections to the all- party talks will begin on Monday. But Mr Major reaffirmed there would be no ministerial dialogue with Sinn Fein until the ceasefire was unequivocally restored.

David Wilshire, vice- chairman of the Tory backbench Northern Ireland committee, wanted more reassurance that the summit communique was not "selling out to the men of violence" and suggested the Government had softened its stance on the decommissioning of weapons. Though he rejected the charge, Mr Major said there were some areas where compromise was appropriate. "It is perfectly true that I could stay in a trench and set up 100 good reasons for doing nothing. And I believe, were I to do that, my successors would still be standing here in 50 years time in the same trench."

He warned MPs that the road ahead "may yet be long and stony''. He went on: "The men of violence will not give up lightly. Among them are people who do not truly want peace as we understand it."

The Prime Minister said the road to political respectability for Sinn Fein had been set out. "The choice is theirs . . . I can provide the opportunity for them, but I cannot compel them to take that opportunity."

Maintaining the bipartisan approach, the Labour leader, Tony Blair, said the flow of democracy should not be stemmed simply because the IRA had chosen to revert to violence. "Everyone would prefer Sinn Fein to be in this peace process, provided they are genuinely committed to peace. But they cannot and will not be allowed to drive this process, to seek to guide by violence what they cannot achieve by persuasion."

Paddy Ashdown, leader of the Liberal Democrats, was equally emphatic.

Putting aside recent "harsh words" across the Commons chamber, Seamus Mallon, deputy leader of the nationalist SDLP, praised the two leaders and urged them not to allow the process "to be used by any party or parties as a reason for engaging in another pub crawl of preconditions".

David Trimble, leader of the Ulster Unionists, welcomed Mr Major's reaffirmation of the need "for Sinn Fein-IRA to commit themselves to exclusively peaceful means", but he warned: "In practice, this will be more difficult to achieve after the bombs in London. It cannot be made easier for Sinn Fein-IRA or else they will have gained from their terrorism.

"Consequently, we agree that establishing and honouring such a commitment to peaceful means by Sinn Fein-IRA must be the priority, the first item to be addressed and resolved in this process.

"Until it can be resolved we would find it impossible to meet face to face with Sinn Fein," Mr Trimble said. "In this context, the idea of proximity talks could be useful."

Peter Robinson, deputy leader of the Democratic Unionists, said his party too would only be prepared to negotiate with "legitimate political parties". A ceasefire on the same basis as before - as demanded by Mr Major - was not what was wanted, he added. "We want a permanent ceasefire on this occasion, not a temporary tactical cessation of violence."