The Prime Minister announced in his speech to the Lord Mayor's banquet in the City of London that the Government was now ready to meet the ``political representatives'' of Protestant paramilitaries within the same deadline as that set for talks with Sinn Fein.
He sought to maintain the momentum of the Northern Ireland peace process by making it clear that he would not be deflected by what he described as the ``deplorable murder'' of the Newry postal worker Frank Kerr.
Mr Major was careful to avoid any mention of the split in the Irish coalition government led by Albert Reynolds, his co-signatory to the Downing Street Declaration - which the Prime Minister went out of his way to say had at last ``laid out a level playing field for the politics of Northern Ireland''. But despite the private anxieties of senior British ministers over the threat to Mr Reynolds' survival as Taoiseach - and a warning by the Sinn Fein president, Gerry Adams, that a break-up of the coalition could be disastrous for the peace process - Mr Major's speech was a clear signal that he is determined that it should not be slowed whatever the outcome of the Dublin crisis.
The possibility of a change of government in Dublin without an election grew last night as the Irish President, Mary Robinson, consulted a senior constitutional expert on her options on the formation of a new coalition should the present Fianna Fail-Labour alliance collapse.
With his future as Prime Minister and Fianna Fail leader in the balance, Mr Reynolds will today answer crucial questions in the Dail on his appointment of his former attorney general as High Court President.
While Mr Major made it clear that the Newry murder would not alter the timetable of planned talks with Sinn Fein, he went further than before in making it clear that taking ``illegal weapons and explosives . . . out of commission'' would be a priority for both sets of talks with the paramilitary spokesmen.
He said that ``revulsion and anger'' at the murder of Mr Kerr - which has been condemned by Sinn Fein leaders - ``reinforces the need to deal with weapons held by both republican and loyalist paramiltaries''.
Mr Major added: ``There must be an end to intimidation and punishment beatings. Racketeering and criminality must end as well. These are the essential conditions for democratic legitimacy.'' At the same time he went out of his way to underline for his City audience the ``economic transformation'' that would be unlocked by a lasting peace in Northern Ireland. An international investment conference to be held in Belfast next month would be the ``largest Northern Ireland has ever seen.''
As Dick Spring, the Irish Labour leader and Foreign Minister, made further progress in talks with Sir Patrick Mayhew, the Northern Ireland Secretary, towards a framework constitutional document on Northern Ireland, Mr Adams urged the two Irish coalition parties ``not to fudge, not to set aside, but to get in there, because these are issues that need to be reconciled''.
The present Dublin government had done more to advance the peace process than any other ``and we cannot afford to abandon it''.
Sinn Fein recognises Mr Reynolds' efforts to bring republicans in from the cold, and realises that Irish opposition parties are lukewarm on Dublin's early concessions to republicans.
Before holding informal talks in Dublin with Sir Patrick yesterday, Mr Spring said he was convinced the peace process would survive any change of government. ``What has been achieved will be maintained,'' he predicted.
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