PMs meet for Ulster peace summit today

Major prepared to set date for all-party talks
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John Major and John Bruton, the Irish Prime Minister, will hold a summit meeting in Downing Street today, aimed at rescuing the peace process ruptured by the IRA's mainland bombings.

Downing Street confirmed early today that the summit would go ahead at 12.30pm, after two late-night telephone calls and an intensive series of faxes between Mr Major and Mr Bruton had cleared the final obstacles between the two governments.

The go-ahead for the summit came shortly after midnight - immediately after the second of two personal telephone calls between the two leaders. Last night's agreement clears the way for the British government to publish a document outlining a series of stages intended to lead to all-party talks on Northern Ireland's future. Those talks would include Sinn Fein - provided the IRA ceasefire has been restored and the republicans have demonstrated their commitment to pursuing their goals by peaceful means.

The intense diplomatic activity into the early hours came after John Major had made it publicly clear for the first time yesterday that he was prepared to set a firm date for the start of all-party talks.

The Prime Minister told John Hume, leader of the Social Democratic and Labour Party (SDLP), that he was prepared to set a fixed timetable for round-table negotiations - regarded as essential by Dublin and nationalist politicians if there is to be any hope of securing a new IRA ceasefire.

Contingency plans have been made to delay Mr Major's departure for the Far East, if necessary, because of the summit.

Difficulties between the two governments had involved both the dates and the wording of the explicit guarantee that will have to be given before Sinn Fein can enter talks.

Unionists have been insisting that there must not only be a restoration of the ceasefire but a clear commitment from the republicans that they will stand by the Mitchell report's requirement for them to renounce violence for good.

Ulster Unionist Party (UUP) leaders last night met the government Chief Whip, Alastair Goodlad, in the first faltering attempt to restore relations, after they had plunged to a new low in the wake of the party's decision to oppose the Government in Monday's knife-edge vote on the Scott report.

The depth of the rift was underlined when John Taylor, the UUP's deputy leader, implied that Mr Major could not count on the party to prop up the Government if it lost its majority, telling BBC TV's Newsnight: "This present government is collapsing ... it is in its dying months. It is simply a matter of time when we get a new government for the United Kingdom."

As Mr Major reaffirmed that he had been determined not to make concessions to the Unionists in order to win Monday's vote, Downing Street made no effort to distance itself from the charge by Sir Patrick Mayhew, the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, that the UUP had sought a "clandestine deal" in return for their support.

This was fiercely denied by an angry David Trimble, the Ulster Unionist leader, who said: "It's quite obvious some ministers were disappointed with the way we voted and came out, putting a heavy prejudicial spin to try to get back at us. It is a petty form of revenge by small-minded people."

He targeted his criticism at Northern Ireland ministers, not Mr Major. "Our relationship with the Northern Ireland office has never been terribly good... We have done our best to keep good relations with the Government. We will continue to do so."

Against this difficult background, the draft communique passing between London and Dublin last night left open some of the most difficult questions - including the form of elections to the "peace convention" from which negotiating teams will be selected. This, along with whether there should also be a referendum on both sides of the border, will now be decided in pre-election "high-intensity" talks, involving the Northern Ireland parties and the two governments.

But the draft communique is expected to set alternative dates - 7 weeks or 12 weeks away from the beginning of the process, depending on the electoral system chosen.

It will, however, provide for an immediate move to all-party talks after the peace convention is elected and the negotiators selected - with Sinn Fein allowed to enter only if the IRA ceasefire is restored.

Mr Major told the Commons: "There is no deal with any political party, not with the DUP, not with the Ulster Unionists, not with the SDLP. No deal. Not now. Not yesterday. Not tomorrow. Not all on this process."

News Analysis, page 11