Anglo-Irish differences delay summit: Hopes for autumn agreement on constitution, writes Donald Macintyre

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The Independent Online
AN ANGLO-IRISH summit planned for next Friday was postponed yesterday after John Major and Albert Reynolds, the Taoiseach, decided that they had not yet made the progress needed to agree new constitutional proposals for the future of Northern Ireland.

After an hour-long meeting between the two Prime Ministers in Brussels yesterday, Mr Major and Mr Reynolds insisted the delay need not impede progress on a new constitutional 'framework' which they still hope to agree at a fresh summit in the autumn.

Mr Major and Mr Reynolds reviewed in detail outstanding differences between the two governments - including how far Dublin is prepared to go in amending Articles Two and Three of the Irish constitution, which lay claim to sovereignty over Northern Ireland.

British officials confirmed after the talks that the Government is ready to consider parallel and symbolic changes to the 1920 Government of Ireland Act. But they are pressing Dublin to go even further than they have yet indicated they will do in enshrining in the constitution the principle that Irish unity would only occur if a majority of the Northern Ireland population agreed.

The Prime Minister said after the meeting that he would not have imagined two years ago that the governments could have made so much progress. More work had been commissioned from officials and the issues were 'sensitive' and 'complex'. The plan was to 'regroup' in the early autumn. He added: 'We are examining the issues one by one. As we solve them we move on to the next one.'

He added: 'I'd rather take that gently and get it right than rush it and get it wrong. There is a great deal at stake here.'

Mr Reynolds said that both governments were seeking 'to achieve a new beginning, not just a patch job, not just something to put a bit of sticking plaster on'. The end in sight for both governments if they can overcome the obstacles is a joint document that would combine proposals for an internal Northern Ireland assembly with the constitutional changes and new cross-border institutions on issues of common interest such as trade, tourism and inward investment. Senior ministers, who are cautiously optimistic of agreement, are satisfied that the institutions will not imply the 'joint authority' feared by Unionists.

With Unionists increasingly wary about any agreement which goes beyond the restoration of internal democracy in Northern Ireland, officials acknowledged both sides were seeking to 'balance' nationalist and Unionist concerns in securing changes to the Irish constitution.

If the obstacles could be cleared, London would probably amend its own 1920 Act to make it clear that Westminster control of Northern Ireland would also depend on the consent of the province's majority.

British officials are convinced that the delay will not influence the long expected response from Sinn Fein/IRA to the Downing Street declaration, which the republicans have indicated will follow a delegate conference provisionally fixed for the end of July.