Tory critics hold their fire

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"We've got the bird flying. It's squawking and screeching, and there are a few feathers falling off, but it's in the air, and it's still flying," said one minister after the Prime Minister's statement to the Commons yesterday.

There was little sniping at John Major's Northern Ireland initiative from the Tory back benches. A few Tory MPs who were fuming at the statement refused to criticise their leader in public. "I don't want to be the first," said one former minister who privately said it was "appalling" for Ulster.

Nicholas Winterton was the only Tory MP to raise doubts in the Commons. His wife, Ann, who voted against the Anglo-Irish Agreement, is planning to write to the Prime Minister, expressing her opposition to the document, but the threats of resignation among ministers proved exaggerated. Lord Cranborne, the leading critic in the Cabinet, delivered the statement in the Lords.

One right-wing Cabinet minister said he was satisfied by the guarantees given by the Government that a united Ireland could not be imposed on the Ulster Unionists. Most Tory MPs were also prepared to give it the benefit of the doubt.

The unease among some was overridden by a deep reluctance to be seen to be challenging the peace process.

A handful were planning to protest to the Prime Minister about the "betrayal" of the Ulster people but one said: "Today is not the day."

Euro-sceptic Tory MPs were among the main critics of the Framework Document in private, but a leading anti-Maastricht strategist said Ulster would not split the Tory party like Europe had.

"There are release valves written into the Framework Document, that is what makes it completely different from the row over Europe. This is a consultation document and the Unionists will keep talking, for years, if necessary," he said.

Sir Patrick Mayhew, the Northern Ireland Secretary, prepared the Tory back benches with a briefing for about 50 MPs in a ministerial conference room in the Commons, an hour before the Prime Minister's statement. Michael Ancram, the Minister of State for Northern Ireland, also briefed the Northern Ireland committee of Tory MPs on the eve of the announcement.

Dame Elaine Kellett-Bowman, MP for Lancaster, questioned Sir Patrick about the concerns of the Unionists but there was said to be general support for the policy.

Andrew Hunter, chairman of the Conservative back bench Northern Ireland committee, said: "There are strong pro-Unionist feelings on the back bench and we are disturbed by their negative response but since this is only consultation, I think they are over-reacting.

"It is now for Sinn Fein to say whether they accept the constitutional guarantee for the North. They still have not accepted the terms of the Downing Street Declaration."

Lady Olga Maitland, another leading member of the Tory Northern Ireland committee, said: "The basic attitude has been very supportive." She said the silence of the nationalists suggested they were either happy with the Framework Document or "they have something up their sleeves".

Some Tory MPs remain concerned that the IRA has not surrendered its Semtex. Ministers are also worried that the continued targeting of politicians and security by the IRA could herald a return to violence.

One source said there had been a shift by the Government in the contacts with Sinn Fein, from demanding the surrender of weapons to seeking agreement on the method for decommissioning.

Most Tory MPs were keeping their fingers crossed last night that the peace would hold. David Evans, a member of the executive of the 1922 Committee, said: "All the parties will have to give up something for peace. For most normal people, all they want is to get on with their lives. You get extremists, but most people want peace. John Major has done brilliantly. He doesn't do everything right, but he has done this."