Paisley warns of civil war in Ulster: Major and Reynolds try to defuse tension over impending ceasefire

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THE GOVERNMENT yesterday sought to defuse what it views as the dangerously high level of community tension in Northern Ireland in advance of the permanent IRA ceasefire that is expected to be announced today.

Downing Street attempted to allay Unionist concerns by declaring that there was no question of making concessions in the wave of the move. This placated some Unionists but left unmoved the Rev Ian Paisley, who is pressing for a meeting with John Major. He said: 'The vast majority of people in Northern Ireland don't want civil war but they are being compelled into a civil war situation by what the Government is doing. What the Unionists have been told has been a tissue of lies from Whitehall.'

The Taoiseach, Albert Reynolds, said in Dublin that the island of Ireland was poised for peace and a new beginning. He was speaking after a cabinet meeting that received an upbeat assessment of the prospects for peace.

And, in an evident message to anxious Ulster unionists, he added: 'I would urge that nobody should be afraid of peace and the whole new vista of opportunities which can now open up for the benefit and economic prosperity of all the people of Ireland.

'A complete cessation of violence, and the principles of the Downing Street declaration are our new starting point.'

As Protestant politicians and clergymen warned of a high level of alienation and suspicion, the Government's prime concern was to stress that republicans had to end violence for good, and that Northern Ireland's status would not change without the consent of a majority there. A spokesman said: 'The principle of consent lies at the heart of the document.'

In Belfast, people in Catholic areas spoke of their hope for the future, but Protestants feared a 'sell- out'. The Ulster Unionist leader, James Molyneaux, who at the weekend accused the SDLP leader, John Hume, of selling his soul to the devil, struck a much calmer tone yesterday, saying he was confident the Government had no plans to change Northern Ireland's constitutional position.

He added: 'Contrary to wild speculation over the weekend, there has been no shift in the attitude of Her Majesty's Government. Any events this week should be viewed against that background.'

British officials could be talking openly to Sinn Fein before the end of November if the IRA fulfils expectations by calling a permanent end to violence today.

Mr Reynolds has increased optimism in Whitehall by telephoning Mr Major twice to emphasise that he expects the IRA to call the lasting halt to violence envisaged in last December's Downing Street joint declaration. The discussions took place on Monday and last night as Downing Street moved to reassure Unionist and right-wing Tory opinion that it had made no concessions to the republicans in return for an end to violence.

British officials said that, if the permananent cessation went ahead, 'preliminary and exploratory dialogue' between the Government and Sinn Fein would begin within three months. The 'dialogue' would have three purposes: to 'explore' the basis upon which Sinn Fein would subsequently join the constitutional parties in the 'inclusive political talks process'; to exchange views 'on how Sinn Fein would be able over a period' to play the same part as other parties; and 'to examine the practical consequences of the ending of violence'.

Visa row, page 2

A huge booby-trap bomb was defused by security forces in Co Tyrone last night. The device - containing 550lbs of explosives and made to look like an abandoned 'barrack-buster' mortar bomb - was made safe after it was found in a van outside Pomeroy. Two smaller bombs went off in Belfast last night, but no one was injured.

(Photograph omitted)