The Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, Sir Patrick Mayhew, will face renewed demands for his resignation today when he makes a statement to the Commons on the contacts. In an attempt at damage limitation he will publish up to 12 documents exchanged between the Government and the IRA.
Ministers and whips worked overtime yesterday to head off any Tory rebellion on the issue, and last night the indications were that senior Conservative MPs were ready to support Mr Major's decision to have contact with the IRA.
But the disclosure, after repeated government denials, came as a body blow to the Prime Minister's authority. Earlier this month he told MPs the idea of talking to the terrorists 'would turn my stomach'. Unionists have called for the resignations of both Mr Major and Sir Patrick.
One Cabinet minister told the Independent he was shocked by the disclosure, although he supported the initiative. There are doubts that Sir Patrick can survive; he was pale and nervous at a Belfast news conference yesterday, forgetting his spectacles as he stalked from the room.
Labour held back from calling for his resignation, but said that could change if the documents do not support the Government's repeated denials.
Sir Patrick's central argument, which he will repeat in the Commons today, rests on his assertion that the contact was sanctioned because the IRA sent a message saying the conflict was over.
That was dismissed by the Sinn Fein president, Gerry Adams, who said last night: 'At no point was there any communication from the IRA that the conflict was over. Outlines of policy were exchanged and discussed. They have lied to their own parliament, to the Unionists and to the Irish and British people about the existence and nature of their contact with Sinn Fein.' Mr Adams said the talks had been face-to-face.
Sir Patrick, in denying that any negotations had taken place, revealed that a secret channel of communication between the Government and republicans had been in place for some years and had been of value.
In response to a claim by Martin McGuinness of Sinn Fein that he had held face-to-face meetings with government representatives, Sir Patrick said two such meetings had taken place but were unauthorised. Official sources later suggested those involved had connections with the Foreign Office and the Secret Intelligence Service, MI6, indicating that the Government had been displeased when it learnt of the contacts.
The sources were unusually forthcoming in commenting on MI6, presenting its members' activities in this area as completely unauthorised and in marked contrast to the rectitude with which Sir Patrick was said to have acted. The sources said the Secretary of State had the full backing of Cabinet colleagues, including the Prime Minister, in his actions.
Sir Patrick surprised observers by announcing that the secret channel of communication had not only existed for years but was still in operation earlier this month, when messages were passed back and forth. After years in which ministers denied the existence of such channels, Sir Patrick yesterday presented its existence as a matter almost of common sense.
While supporting contacts with the IRA, Paddy Ashdown, the Liberal Democrat leader, accused Mr Major of stupidity or duplicity. 'The Prime Minister's own credibility is on the line,' Mr Ashdown said.
The demands for Sir Patrick to resign were made by Ian Paisley's DUP, who exposed the contacts by leaking a copy of secret government briefing notes for one of the meetings.
James Molyneaux's Official Ulster Unionists were more cautious. Mr Molyneaux was briefed by ministers in advance of the leak. But David Trimble, the Unionist MP for Upper Bann, said that if the documents showed there had been negotiations, and the Government had misled MPs, it would be 'very serious'.
Michael Mates, the former Northern Ireland minister, confirmed Mr Major had approved the contacts. He said they had been received 'out of the blue' in February saying 'the conflict is over'.
'It would have been criminally foolish not to respond,' he said. Mr Mates denied the Government had broken its assurances that 'no one has been authorised to negotiate'.
The public did not want to know every nuance, Mr Mates said. 'If we had made that contact public, we could have been accused of setting the peace process back, so we didn't' The terrorists 'now know our position that we will not talk or negotiate unless there is an unequivocal, one- sided end to the violence by them'.
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