Peace search goes on, Major pledges

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The Independent Online

The Prime Minister yesterday underlined his determination to press on with the peace process, in spite of the London bombing campaign by the IRA. Downing Street said there would be "no end to the search for peace in Northern Ireland".

John Major and the Irish Prime Minister, John Bruton, yesterday were working on a formula to produce a firm date for all-party negotiations, with the hope of persuading the IRA to resume the ceasefire.

Sir Patrick Mayhew, the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, also appealed to loyalist paramilitaries not to retaliate. Unionist MPs in London privately warned that if they relaunched their own terrorist campaign, the loyalists would strike in Dublin. "They probably already have people in Dublin. The quietest place is going to be Belfast," said one MP.

Condemning the "disgraceful" acts of terrorism in London, the Prime Minister's office said: "We want an immediate restoration of the ceasefire. We have made it clear if we are pushed back, we will start again. There will be no end to the search for peace."

After talks lasting almost two hours with Mr Major, John Hume, leader of the nationalist SDLP, said one of the most crucial ways to achieve a return to the ceasefire was "a fixed date for all-party talks".

The formula being thrashed out between London and Dublin could give Gerry Adams, the Sinn Fein president, a date for all-party negotiations to take back to the IRA to call off the return to violence.

It is likely to involve three stages: ground-setting talks between the governments and the parties; elections in Northern Ireland to appoint negotiating teams; and negotiations between the parties by a fixed date after the elections.

The Prime Minister and Mr Bruton would expect all parties taking part in the elections to support the six principles in the Mitchell report on decommissioning, including renouncing violence. Ulster Unionist sources said the elections could take place in April, with all-party talks a few days later.

Sinn Fein has refused to back the six principles. The Ulster Unionists, led by David Trimble, and the Democratic Unionist Party, led by Ian Paisley, are likely to refuse direct talks with Sinn Fein.

Mr Hume told Mr Major he did not support the plan for elections, and is holding out for a referendum on the need for a peaceful all-party settlement. "The objective must be a comprehensive settlement, involving all the parties," said Mr Hume, who met Mr Adams at the weekend to discuss the chances of producing a fresh peace initiative.

However, it was unclear last night whether Sinn Fein would accept the formula. Mr Major will meet Mr Trimble today amid growing pessimism at Westminster over the chances of reviving the peace process.

Some Tory MPs believe the ceasefire is now history, and are preparing again for a long, hard slog to produce a Northern Ireland agreement, which Sinn Fein may boycott. There are also doubts about the ability of Mr Adams to deliver another IRA ceasefire.

The IRA bomb blasts in London are likely to delay the ending of special procedures for interviewing terrorist suspects in Northern Ireland, the Government made clear last night.

As the Commons debated moves to introduce silent video recordings of such interviews in the province's holding centres, the Northern Ireland minister, Sir John Wheeler, said the Government hoped soon to see an end to the centres. But, referring to the Docklands bombing and last night's explosion on a London bus, he told MPs: "Alas, I wish I could be sure that would be so in the current circumstances."

Sir John said: "The Government looks forward to a time when all suspects will be interviewed under normal criminal procedures. I say this despite the Provisional IRA's announcement of 9 February [ending the ceasefire], although I acknowledge that, in the light of that announcement and the events that have followed, we may not move to that position quite as soon as we might have hoped."

Meanwhile in WashingtonPresident Bill Clinton condemned the IRA bombing andurged the people of Britain and Ireland to press for peace. "I condemn these acts of violence in the strongest possible terms and hope those responsible are brought swiftly to justice," he said.

"It is with great sadness that I once again express my condolences to the victims of an IRA bomb in London.

"These cowardly acts of terrorism are the work of individuals determined to thwart the will of the people of Northern Ireland."

The President had already condemned the IRA bomb attack on 9 February, which broke a 17-month truce. Administration officials said Mr Clinton will not decide soon whether to grant a US visa to Mr Adams, who wants to visit the US for St Patrick's Day, but will delay a decision until the last minute, to see if the violence continues.