U-turn result of ministers' pressure

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Political pressure was applied by ministers to Sir Hugh Annesley, the Chief Constable of the Royal Ulster Constabulary, to perform a U-turn and allow marchers to pass along Garvaghy Road, a government source told the Independent yesterday.

But in heated Commons exchanges, Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, Sir Patrick Mayhew, repeatedly assured MPs that there had been "no political pressure of any kind"; the decision was an operational matter, he said.

According to the Prime Minister's Office, Mr Major briefed yesterday morning's Cabinet on efforts to achieve a local solution to the confrontation, but he was not told of Sir Hugh's decision until after President Nelson Mandela of South Africa had addressed both Houses of Parliament, at about midday.

However, the Independent was told by one well-placed government source that in talks with Sir Hugh, ministers had from the outset "advocated" permission to be given for a token march.

Another source said it was inevitable that the marchers would have to be allowed through, and added dismissively: "The other side will now wail and say it should not have happened, but it had to happen."

One nationalist source said with deep bitterness that he fully expected to see government ministers appearing in Orange Order sashes, and during Northern Ireland questions in the Commons the Social Democratic and Labour Party leader, John Hume, said the decision marked a "surrender" in the face of intimidation.

Sir Patrick rejected the suggestion of surrender, but he urged Mr Hume to reflect that Northern Ireland public order legislation "requires that whenever the Chief Constable considers whether to exercise his powers to give directions to a march, he has to balance one risk against another - the risk of serious public disorder if a march goes ahead against, no doubt in some circumstances, the risk of serious public disorder if it does not."

However, he disclosed later that the Government would be looking closely over the next few days at the possibility of introducing "agreed criteria and guidelines" aimed at handling marches better in the future - something that Labour's Northern Ireland spokeswoman Marjorie Mowlam has been urging for some time.