Molyneaux takes a swing at Ulster talks with Dublin

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THE ULSTER UNIONIST leader James Molyneaux last night fired a calculated broadside at John Major's joint peace process with Dublin by warning that the Irish government was functioning as a 'conduit' for the IRA.

In a determined effort to steer the Prime Minister back to focusing on the more limited objective of all-party talks on a revived internal democracy for the province, Mr Molyneaux said such efforts would 'succeed where high drama fails'.

Mr Molyneaux's Commons speech was seen in Westminster as a sharp setback to Mr Major's twin-track strategy of simultaneously seeking an end to IRA violence and a political deal within the province.

Mr Molyneaux said that 'the disastrous juxtaposition' of political discussions with the 'price demanded by the IRA in return for a halt to murder' meant the Government was being required to do a deal not with Albert Reynolds, the Irish Prime Minister, but with Gerry Adams, president of Sinn Fein. Mr Molyneaux added: 'No amount of diplomatic verbiage can conceal that uncomfortable fact that Dublin is merely the conduit.'

His warning came less than two hours after Mr Major had again highlighted hopes for peace by repeating in the Commons that the Government 'wished to know' if the IRA were prepared to end violence for good. Mr Major said it was right to put that question 'when there do seem to be some suggestions that the IRA may be thinking about an end to violence'. Such 'suggestions' - publicly mentioned by Mr Major for the first time yesterday - appear to stem both from intelligence reports and the account given him by Mr Reynolds of the talks between Mr Adams and John Hume, leader of the Social Democratic and Labour Party.

Mr Major insisted that the Government needed a 'clear and unqualified answer' from the IRA which respected the 'vital principle' that Northern Ireland's status cannot change without the consent of its people.

Mr Molyneaux's intervention, which is certain to be taken seriously by the Prime Minister, may increase difficulties in fixing a date and a common line between London and Dublin for Mr Reynolds' summit with Mr Major next month.

While the Government has been more prepared to discount the opposition of the hardline Democratic Unionist Party - whose leader, Ian Paisley, Mr Major has agreed to meet today - Mr Molyneaux's Ulster Unionist Party, with nine MPs, has an accord with Mr Major which he regards as pivotal in ensuring a clear parliamentary majority.

Support for Major, page 8

Leading article, page 17

Broadcasting ban, page 25