Chosen few told of `problem' : Midnight meeting : Irish peace crisis

It was a few minutes before midnight on Tuesday when whips began to move through the House of Commons inviting a selected group of around 70 Tory MPs to go to the Prime Minister's room for a meeting, writes Donald Macintyre.

One MP with a history of interest in Irish questions was surprised to be approached discreetly, as he sipped a drink in the smoking room, to be told: "The Prime Minister wants to see you in his room. There's a problem on Northern Ireland."

The MPs were a cross-section of those with an interest in Northern Ireland, some key right-wingers such as William Cash and Sir George Gardiner, chairman of the 92 group of MPs, and Andrew Hunter, chairman of the backbench Northern Ireland committee. According to MPs, when they arrived they found John Major pale but determined, according to one MP, and a sombre Sir Patrick Mayhew flanked by Richard Ryder, the Chief Whip.

Mr Major "was quite cheerful but obviously really angry about the leak". He said he had heard that the Times was to publish selected and "incomplete" extracts of a draft of the Anglo-Irish document. It had been an attempt to "derail the peace process" and he was determined that it should not do so.

By this time last year, the Prime Minister said, 20 people had already lost their lives; this year there had been no such deaths. He said the rumour-mongers were out, adding: "There has been black work at the crossroads of peace."

The ministers were joined by Lord Cranborne, Leader of the Lords, who pointed out that his "Orange" views were well known, but said he fully supported the Prime Minister. Sir George Gardiner offered Mr Major his "wholehearted support" but urged him to meet James Molyneaux, the Ulster Unionist leader, to ensure his continued support.

According to one MP, Mr Major floated the idea of last night's broadcast, telling MPs that if the document was going to "fall" it "should not be because we have shrugged our shoulders and walked away but because the Ulster people have rejected it".

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