Poll plan a mistake, Bruton tells Major

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The Independent Online

Political Editor

A fresh rift between Dublin and London loomed last night in the wake of Friday night's IRA bomb, after John Bruton, the Taoiseach, warned bluntly that it would be a " serious mistake" for John Major to continue promoting elections as a precondition of all-party talks.

Both Mr Bruton and Sir Patrick Mayhew, the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, pledged themselves to the continued search for a lasting peace - with Sir Patrick saying on BBC TV's Breakfast with Frost that the peace process had been "injured ... very seriously injured, but it's not terminally injured and we're going to keep it going".

And Mr Bruton issued a clear warning - in some respects going even further than the British government- that the Irish government could not meet Sinn Fein under any threat of renewed violence. While channels of communication between Dublin and Sinn Fein remained open, there could not be "political meetings" with them "wherein we negotiate under duress".

This drew a negative response yesterday from Gerry Adams, President of Sinn Fein who, on Irish radio, accused the government in Dublin of retreating from its central responsibility to play a leadership role in moving things forward.

"I have to say that I reject - as nicely as I can - that the party I represent is not wedded to our peace strategy," he said.

"I have to ask the Taoiseach to reconsider his position. What room does it give anyone to manoeuvre?" He said that talks between Sinn Fein and the two governments were an urgent priority.

But Mr Bruton coupled his warning to Sinn Fein with a clear declaration that to hold the elections proposed by the Unionists and backed by the British government would "pour petrol on the flames". Mr Bruton, who unequivocally condemned the IRA bomb at South Quay on Friday night, added: "I think it would be a serious mistake. I would urge Sir Patrick not to pursue that path, to accept the advice of the Irish Government."

Of the proposals for "proximity" talks, in which all the parties, probably under United States chairmanship, would convene in one building for parallel sessions on the model of the Dayton peace conference on Bosnia, Mr Bruton said: "We believe that is the way forward."

The Irish Prime Minister was emphatic on BBC TV's On the Record that there was no "moral equivalence" between the "mistake" the British government had made by canvassing elections to a body which would then be represented in all-party talks and the use of violence by the IRA to achieve its political aims.

But he declared: "I believe that the decision to introduce in the middle of this process the idea that there are only two ways forward - one a pre-condition of giving up weapons, or a pre- condition of an election ... was a mistake."

By contrast, Sir Patrick, in his interview insisted that the idea of elections was a "door into the conference table" and not "an obstacle".

He added that such elections could be "very quick", adding: "By passing through that door [Sinn Fein] generate the confidence in everybody else that they are truly committed ... putting themselves forward as democratically committed to peaceful means

"It gives a mandate to Unionists and sit down and talk to people, notwithstanding that [the IRA] haven't started to decommission, and that is why it is a door and not an obstacle."

Sir Patrick insisted that the purpose of last night's Cabinet committee meeting at Downing Street was "keeping the peace process alive". He added: "Never is this process going to be allowed to die, because if you allow that to die, you surrender to those who are determined to achieve their political will by violent means."

John Hume, leader of the Social Democratic and Labour Party, said in strong terms on the same programme that an "elected assembly was the wrong road"

He added: " Elections will come out of our negotiations but they shouldn't be the first step on the road, because they'll make sure that agreement will become virtually impossible."

Mr Hume said that Gerry Adams - like himself - had been "shattered" by Friday night's bomb and insisted that both men had agreed in talks on Saturday that they would do everything in their power to recover the momentum for peace.