Dublin talks rumble into diplomatic fudge: Alan Murdoch reports on a portent-laden meeting

THE SLIGHTLY battered British Embassy Ford Granada carrying Sir Patrick Mayhew, Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, to the elegant Georgian courtyard of Dublin Castle, former seat of British power on the island, set the tone. With its rear bumper bent and wheel arches showing signs of rust, here was a vision of the end of Empire.

Yesterday's meeting between Albert Reynolds and John Major came after a week that saw claims of secret UK briefings for the republican leadership all but turn British government credibility into a contradiction in terms.

Mr Reynolds's wrath at his supposed London ally's duplicity was signalled in remarks from Noel Dempsey, the Dublin government's chief whip. The British behaviour alleged by Martin McGuinness had been 'unacceptable if true', Mr Dempsey had said. Inside the castle, the word was that Mr Reynolds, livid at being pressed by London not to mention the offensive words 'Hume- Adams' while Mr Major parleyed privately with the Provos, was starting the meeting with 15 minutes of Irish spleen.

Douglas Hurd's presence pointed to the main business - devising another of those impenetrably ambiguous phrases born at each new juncture of Britain's involvement in Ireland, by remoulding 'freely given consent' and 'recognising the value of nationalist aims' into a new gem of diplomatic fudge. There was no fudging outside when Ian Paisley arrived, flanked by 25 Democratic Unionist Party supporters waving Union Jacks and posters proclaiming 'Eire Get Out of Ulster', to hand in a letter of protest for Mr Major.

'Attempts have been made to put Mary Robinson, the president of the Irish Republic, on a par in Ulster with Her Majesty the Queen,' he raged. 'The said lady was happy to shake Gerry Adams's bloody hand on her visit to Belfast. Portraits of our Queen are, however, banned from workplaces under legislation flowing from the Anglo-Irish dictat. The people of Ulster will never lie down and capitulate to your Dublin plans.'

Moments later, a genial grey-haired figure called Christy Burke extended his hand in friendship across the security barrier and had it shaken. 'I welcomed him to my constituency and said I was very grateful he had come down.' The DUP leader then learned of his error - Mr Burke is a Sinn Fein member of Dublin Corporation.

Ambiguity spread from the street to the airwaves. Asked how they felt having to trust the words of Republicans over their own government, a DUP spokesman quoted an elderly east Belfast woman constituent, who had said: 'Well they (the IRA) may be murderers, but at least they're not liars.'

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