People of Ireland to get a vote for peace

Referendum plan: Governments hope democratic mandate on both sides of border can restore IRA ceasefire
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A referendum is to be held on the same day as elections in Northern Ireland, under plans for rescuing the peace process, drawn up by the British and Irish Governments.

In the referendum, voters on both sides of the border will be asked to endorse the requirement for democratic parties to renounce violence, as set out in paragraph 10 of the Downing Street Declaration and the Mitchell report.

Ministers in Dublin and London are hoping that an overwhelming vote in support of renouncing violence in bothNorthern Ireland and the Republic will intensify pressure on Sinn Fein to persuade the IRA to abandon its campaign of killing.

Sir Patrick Mayhew, the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, said another ceasefire would have to be credible.

Voters in Northern Ireland will also be asked to elect about 90 members from 18 seats to a body with the responsibility of appointing negotiating teams for all-party talks. Sir Patrick told MPs that no precise date for the start of talks could be given, in spite of the demands by the nationalists, but they would start "in days rather than weeks" after the elections.

Legislation is to be rushed through the Commons to set up the elections and the referendum, probably by the end of April. A date for all-party talks could be crucial; it has been demanded by Gerry Adams, the Sinn Fein president, as the only hope for persuading the IRA to restore the ceasefire. Sir Patrick made it clear the Government could offer a strict timetable for progress, but no precise date.

Some of the detail, including the wording of the referendum, and the structure of the elected body, has yet to be agreed. "We have in this process of intensive talks tried to rough-hew an agreed way forward. I believe there are very good prospects for doing so," Sir Patrick said.

The RUC is preparing a security strategy to protect voters going to the polls in Northern Ireland. The details are to be announced at a summit between John Major and John Bruton, the Irish Prime Minister, which they still hope will be held next Wednesday, before Mr Major leaves for a visit to the Far East.

Whitehall sources cast doubt on rumours that the summit would be postponed, and a deal reached in the Far East. The process was accelerated yesterday, as Mr Major met David Trimble, the leader of the Ulster Unionists.

The former US Senator, George Mitchell, is expected to meet Mr Major today to discuss ways in which the US Government can assist the peace process. Mr Mitchell last night held talks in Dublin with Mr Bruton and denied he was acting as a US mediator, but senior British ministers believe he could play a pivotal role.

Launching the International Crisis Group, a privately funded organisation which will begin work as a facilitator for the reconstruction of Bosnia, he said: "It is easy to surrender to despair in this situation ... But the reality is that great progress has been made."

Mr Mitchell said he was disappointed by the bombings in London, but not surprised. "I had no inside information. It was on the basis of what I thought to be plain common sense from their frustration."