MP vows to quit over Ulster talks deal

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A ministerial aide last night threatened to resign the Conservative whip, wiping out John Major's Commons majority, in protest at the deal struck between the British and Irish governments over the peace talks in Ulster on Monday.

A backlash by Ulster Unionist MPs, and the resignation threat by Terry Dicks, a parliamentary aide to John Watts, the Transport minister, overshadowed the unveiling of the plans.

They were hailed by Dick Spring, the Irish Foreign Minister, as the best chance of peace which the two governments could have offered.

The decision to give the former US senator George Mitchell a central role as chairman of the plenary session was condemned by Ian Paisley, the leader of the DUP.

The official opening of the talks on Monday by John Major and John Bruton, the Irish Prime Minister, could be disrupted by Ulster Unionists protesting at Mr Mitchell, and Sinn Fein, which has been excluded because of the failure of the IRA to restore the ceasefire.

David Wilshire, vice-chairman of the Tory backbench committee on Northern Ireland, said Mr Mitchell's appointment was "yet another attempt to appease terrorists. It is an attempt to do a deal with evil. It won't work. It can't work."

The Irish had pressed for Mr Mitchell to chair the delicate "strand-two" negotiations between the parties on North-South relations between Ulster and the Republic. But David Trimble, the Ulster Unionist leader, said: "If there is any attempt to give him the powers of a supremo, they will have another think coming."

The deal was held up because of a dispute over the overall control of Mr Mitchell. Dublin sees his presence as an important guarantee to Sinn Fein of US influence on the progress of the talks.

President Bill Clinton congratulated Mr Bruton on his efforts with the British government over the Northern Ireland peace process. He spoke for almost 10 minutes on the telephone with the Irish Prime Minister.

The Irish negotiators were forced to accept a compromise to allow the "strand-two" talks to be chaired by a Canadian, General de Chastelain, who was also a member of the Mitchell commission on the decommissioning of the IRA's weapons. However, last night members of the Irish team privately expressed satisfaction that Mr Mitchell will play the overarching role which caused the Ulster Unionists to protest.

Mr Spring urged the IRA to think again about their warnings this week that a ceasefire was extremely remote. He made it clear the door would be left open to Sinn Fein as soon as a ceasefire is announced.

"It is crucial in terms of the decommissioning question that Sinn Fein is at that phase of the discussions. It is unlikely others will engage in meaningful discussions on the decommissioning question in their absence. It is our hope they would be able to be at the talks sooner rather than later. It is incumbent upon Sinn Fein and IRA to make the decisions that are necessary."

The rules for the talks require a review of progress on decommissioning and other issues by the end of September. But Mr Spring left open the possibility that there could be a further delay if Sinn Fein enters the talks late.

Mr Mitchell will chair the plenary session and the subcommittee on decommissioning. General de Chastelain will also chair a business committee. The agenda for the opening session will start with a requirement that all the parties declare their support for the Mitchell report, disowning violence. The British government will chair "strand one" of the negotiations, which deals with internal Northern Ireland matters.

The British and Irish governments will jointly chair "strand three", which covers relations between the two countries. Mr Mitchell will be able to convene further meetings of the plenary session as he considers necessary.

He also has powers to try to break through an impasse if there is no consensus, by offering his own solution.