Mayhew gaffe threatens hopes of Ulster talks: Minister apologises after opera joke over Belfast bombing

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The Independent Online
A FLIPPANT remark at the opera led to an apology last night from Sir Patrick Mayhew, the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, after he appeared to joke about a Belfast bombing.

The throwaway line at a champagne reception before the opera attended by the Prime Minister angered opposition MPs and left John Major's government looking more accident-prone than ever.

Sir Patrick, who has patiently sought to piece together a political consensus on Ulster, was asked by a BBC journalist at the gala event on Saturday for a comment on a grenade explosion which had injured marchers in an Orange Order parade. The Ulster Secretary refused, saying he was going to the opera. The interviewer said: 'Thirty people injured.'

Sir Patrick replied: 'Well, nobody dead. At the end of this opera (Donizetti's Lucia di Lammermoor) everybody's dead.' When his words met a crashing silence, he quickly added: 'It was a very bad thing. It's not a thing to joke about at all. It's a very serious thing from what I hear. I'm not joking about it in the slightest degree . . .'

Downing Street and the Northern Ireland office played down the affair as a storm in a tea-cup last night. But the high-tension atmosphere in Northern Ireland does not allow for such slips.

Peter Brooke, Sir Patrick's predecessor, was pilloried and is believed to have offered to resign after offending Loyalists by singing 'My darling Clementine' on a television chat show in the Republic on the same day that eight Protestants were killed by the IRA in Northern Ireland.

An apology was demanded in the Commons yesterday by Bill O'Brien, a Labour spokesman on Northern Ireland, who accused Sir Patrick of being unfeeling.

Peter Robinson, the DUP MP, said: 'He realised what he said after he said it. But this Secretary of State makes gaffe after gaffe after gaffe.'

Last night, Sir Patrick said that he very much regretted the incident. It is unlikely to cost him his job, but, in spite of his apology, his slip of the tongue will undermine hopes of restarting the talks process.