Nobel prize rumours leave Major 'irritated'

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Chief Political Correspondent

The Prime Minister was irritated last night by a series of rumours sweeping the Tory conference that the Nobel Peace Prize is to be awarded today to politicians who helped bring peace to Northern Ireland.

Rumours in Washington and Dublin suggested the Nobelpanel may have decided to give the award to Albert Reynolds, the former Irish Prime Minister, and John Hume, the leader of the SDLP, excluding John Major and Gerry Adams, the Sinn Fein president. Mr Major is among the nominations, with Mr Reynolds, and the announcement, due at 11am today, threatens to overshadow his keynote speech to the conference, which he will be making at the same time.

Aides said last night that he had not been told who had won the $1m prize but "he is irritated". If he wins the award it could be a remarkable feather in his cap, which could produce a substantial political bonus for the Prime Minister.

The Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, Sir Patrick Mayhew, will seek to push the peace process forward next week in talks with Dick Spring, the Irish Foreign Minister. There are accelerating contacts between the two governments and Sinn Fein leaders in an attempt to overcome the impasse in the peace process.

Michael Ancram, the Northern Ireland minister who is acting as a go-between, had useful talks with Martin McGuinness, the Sinn Fein leader, and is hopeful that the party will drop opposition to a commission to oversee the decommissioning of IRA weapons.

Sinn Fein is being brought under strong pressure from Washington to agree to the international commission, which will be headed by a respected US figure. London and Dublin support the idea, and British ministers believe it remains the key to making further progress towards inclusive all-party talks.

Officials denied a report that there was an early prospect of Gerry Adams sitting down with David Trimble, the Ulster Unionist leader, unless there is progress on decommissioning. But Irish sources noted a softening by Sir Patrick on three conditions, including decommissioning IRA arms, set out in Washington for Sinn Fein to take part in all-party talks.

Sir Patrick yesterday told the Tory party conference he was seeking the three conditions, but that was seen as a shift from earlier demands. He outlined the twin-track formula for the commission, and a fresh round of preliminary talks involving all the parties, which was to have been announced at the summit between Mr Major and John Bruton, the Irish premier.

The summit had to be called off by the Irish when Sinn Fein rejected the commission. Sir Patrick made it clear that the commission proposal was not dead and a fresh summit could be arranged next month, before President Clinton visits London and Dublin.

If the commission can be accepted, Sinn Fein will quickly move to the bilateral or trilateral talks with the two governments and, probably, the SDLP.

Sir Patrick said Sinn Fein could only join the all-party talks with the Ulster Unionists after progress on decommissioning. "We have proposed preliminary talks, with all parties able to contribute, to prepare the ground for the later all-party political negotiations.

"But we will not call for such all-party negotiations on the political future of Northern Ireland when we know that, for lack of the necessary confidence, those parties representing most of the people of Northern Ireland will not come," he said.