The proposed composition of the Select Committee on Northern Ireland, likely to be set up within two weeks, has provoked a formal complaint from Labour, which is already involved in a procedural war with the Government in the Commons.
The plans emerged as John Major and the Irish premier, Albert Reynolds, reaffirmed their commitment to last December's joint declaration on Nothern Ireland despite Sinn Fein's failure to renounce violence. The two leaders, meeting before yesterday's England v Ireland rugby international, agreed to proceed with talks involving the constitutional parties after an interval of several weeks.
However, the proposed composition of the select committee will be seen as a sign of Mr Major's determination to solidify his alliance with the Ulster Unionists.
Ministers want the 13- strong committee, which has long been demanded by the Unionists, to be chaired by Sir James Kilfedder, chairman of the Ulster Popular Unionist Party, and to include two Ulster Unionists, one member of Ian Paisley's Democratic Unionists and six Conservatives.
Under the proposals the Opposition would have two seats, and the predominantly nationalist Social Democratic and Labour Party, one. Labour, which argues that the committee should be 15-strong with a Labour chair, is furious.
Kevin McNamara, their spokesman on Northern Ireland, said: 'Labour should have representation proportionate to its strength in the Commons. They are kowtowing to Unionist pressure because they cannot depend on Tories in the Commons for a majority'. Labour may vote against the composition or boycott the committee.
The idea of Michael Mates, the former Northern Ireland minister, chairing the committee has been rejected by Government business managers although he may join the committee. It also emerged that the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, Sir Patrick Mayhew, and Peter Brooke, the National Heritage Secretary, have vetoed a bid, backed by the Foreign Office, to lift the broadcasting ban on Sinn Fein. Some ministers wanted to use the removal of the ban to challenge Sinn Fein to renounce violence at its annual conference next weekend.
In London yesterday, Mr Major and Albert Reynolds kept their alliance on course. Mr Reynolds agreed to British proposals that the three-stranded talks process, to which the constitutional parties are invited, should go ahead.
However, Mr Major conceded an interlude of several weeks before the talks can be expected to start and agreed there should be no deadline on Sinn Fein acceptance of the declaration. The inter-governmental conference on 10 March is now the next significant landmark in the process. That delay will enable officials from London and Dublin on a liaison committee to negotiate on what the Irish described as a 'check list' of principles, submitted by Sir Patrick, on the shape of new proposals.
Dublin, which has emphasised the joint declaration approach rather than these talks, is concerned that Mr Major will embark on a 'minimalist' course which would limit the cross-border structure to informal consultative bodies.
Mr Reynolds yesterday underlined the Irish belief that the declaration was still alive by arguing that factions within the IRA were at odds over their reaction to the peace declaration. He stressed that he had never envisaged a 'quick decision' and added: 'We knew there would always be people in the paramilitaries who would be trying to stop our best efforts.
'But regardless of the violence and destruction that takes place we will continue along that difficult road, recognising that people will be trying to frustrate our efforts but that they will not succeed.'
Downing Street stressed that the Irish were fully committed to the talks process. Many in Dublin are relaxed because they see the prospect of progress being made as slim since the Rev Ian Paisley's DUP is unlikely to take part, and the SDLP has not committed itself.
Mr Major said: 'No one should be able to veto progress on the talks. We have made it clear what Sinn Fein need to do to join the process.'
'They are free to come in or they are free to stay out - if that is what they choose. But what they can't do is hold up our determination to continue with the talks process and endeavour to find a solution.'
(Photograph omitted)Reuse content