Politics: Ashdown urges Conservative peers to support Northern Ireland Bill

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The Independent Online
TORY PEERS were last night urged not to follow Andrew Mackay, the party's spokesman on Ulster, by opposing the Northern Ireland Bill to allow the early release of prisoners as part of the Ulster peace package.

Amid growing fears within Downing Street that William Hague has lost control over his Shadow Cabinet on the issue, the Liberal Democrat leader Paddy Ashdown and Lord Alderdice, the leader of the Alliance Party of Northern Ireland, yesterday issued a joint statement calling on Tory peers to support the Bill on its second reading on 29 June, in spite of the opposition to it in the Commons led by Mr Mackay.

Their joint appeal is supported by Downing Street, and senior ministerial sources said Tony Blair was concerned that Mr Mackay was "out of control" in running Northern Ireland policy.

There are fears that the Tory peers led by Lord Cranborne, a strong Unionist, will seek to disrupt the Bill and the peace process. Mr Ashdown warned the Tories that they had "chosen the worst imaginable time to break with the well-established tradition of bipartisanship."

Lord Alderdice said: "It would be grossly irresponsible for Tory peers to attempt to delay the Belfast Agreement."

The Tory spokesman led some members of the Shadow Cabinet last week in voting against the Government on the third reading of the Bill on the grounds that it failed to live up to the Prime Minister's pledges to link the release of prisoners with the decommissioning of terrorist weapons.

The opposition to the third reading was endorsed at a meeting of the Shadow Cabinet last Wednesday, but the Conservative leader was absent, due to his bout of flu, and half of the Shadow Cabinet also failed to vote.

Those who were around the House but did not vote included John Major, the former prime minister who relied on Tony Blair's support for his initiatives on Northern Ireland, and Sir Brian Mawhinney, a former Northern Ireland minister.