'Not the end of the road for peace'

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The Independent Online

John Major yesterday stressed his personal determination to continue the search for a permanent peace in Northern Ireland despite the "serious setback" inflicted on the process by the IRA.

"We are not at the end of the road for peace," the Prime Minister told Commons. "If we are pushed back, we will start again. If we are pushed back again, we will start again. If we are pushed back a third time, we will start again."

With MPs united in their condemnation of the Docklands bombing, if not on the route to a lasting peace, Mr Major said the ball was now in the court of Sinn Fein and the IRA.

"Sinn Fein must decide whether they are front for the IRA or a democratic political party committed to the ballot and not to the bullet."

But responding to nationalist concerns over his proposal for elections as the route to all-party talks, he said the Government was "looking at range of different options" on the way forward.

"Other have ideas too, including the Irish government. Our minds are not closed." He emphasised that an elected body would have to be "broadly acceptable" and would be strictly time-limited.

"I am not proposing an assembly with legislative and administrative powers. Any suggestion of a return to old-style Stormont rule is manifest nonsense."

Mr Major warned, in his statement, that more atrocities might follow if the IRA ceasefire was not renewed. MPs voiced their approval when he said that in the absence of a genuine end to renewed violence meetings between British ministers and Sinn Fein "are not acceptable and cannot take place".

As to the relationship between Sinn Fein and the IRA, he thought they were members one of another. "Were that not the case, then perhaps Sinn Fein would be more prepared to openly condemn activities that no civilised person could possibly condone."

Giving an assurance of Labour's continued support, Tony Blair urged the Prime Minister to pursue "all sensible avenues" to all-party talks but agreed that no option could include Sinn Fein unless they came within the democratic process.

"That means they have to be prepared to play by the rules of democracy - that sometimes you can get your way, but sometimes you don't. But you cannot achieve by violence what you are denied by the will of the people."

Paddy Ashdown, pledged Liberal Democrat support for Mr Major's "patient and courageous" search for peace with the Taoiseach, John Bruton, but provoked grumblings from the Tory benches when he spoke of the need for compromise.

It was "an iron law" that wherever the Irish and British governments agreed they could have success, and wherever they disagreed, they gave the terrorists a chance, Mr Ashdown said.

The first priority had be to restore trust and unanimity of voice and action between Dublin and London.

"Surely if that requires compromise on the favourite solutions being put forward by both sides, that is a small price to pay. A new spirit of compromise is the only way - the only way - to ensure that peace itself is not added to the long list of casualties from Canary Wharf."

Anticipating he might meet Mr Bruton next week, Mr Major said the objectives of the two governments remained the same: to try to bring all parties together so that a democratic agreement could be reached.

"Throughout the last three years, we have, many times, had to compromise between ourselves as to the right approach to take...I'm confident that we will be able to reach those agreements again in the future."

John Hume, leader of the nationalist SDLP, called for a referendum in the north and south, asking people to say if they totally disapproved of violence and if they wanted all parties to start dialogue to create lasting stability.

"I think that one of the best ways forward now is to let the people speak and let them speak very clearly. Because if they do, neither the IRA or anybody else will be able to ignore them."

But Ian Paisley, leader of the Democratic Unionists, said people should have they say in an election on who would represent them at the negotiating table, not in a referendum on chosen questions. He found it "very strange indeed" that many commentators and many nationalist leaders condemned what the IRA had done in the heart of London but then parroted the "lying propaganda" of IRA-Sinn Fein that Mr Major and the Unionist leaders were to blame.

For the Ulster Unionists, John Taylor said one of the benefits to be derived from Friday's "terrible incident" was the mobilisation of the Northern Ireland people for a lasting peace. Abhorrence at what happened could be used to isolate the terrorists.

He said those who had given the impression that the elected forum would be a parliament with legislative and administrative powers in a way "fuelled" the IRA bombing.