the border, on the future of Ireland.
As the British Government played down the scope of a planned pre-Christmas declaration of principles, it became clear that talks failed to
make progress over Irish calls for 'self-determination' for
the people of Ireland - to
be expressed in separate referendums.
With the two premiers due to meet again on Friday or Saturday in the margins of the Brussels summit, an Irish official confirmed yesterday: 'We are looking for a recognition of the right of the Irish people to self-determination which would be exercised through concurrent referendums.'
Although Irish officials have made it clear that these 'would not be aggregated on an all-Ireland basis' - which would mean nationalist opinion swamping the unionists - this is unacceptable to the British who are wary of any declaration of 'self-determination'. This is because the term is seen as one which implies that the republic has an effective veto over changes in the north.
In Dublin last week the two prime ministers agreed to work towards a joint declaration expected to take place at the third working meeting in London on 17 December, around the time of the IRA's annual Christmas ceasefire. But in a move which seemed to lower of the stakes, British government sources said that the issue of an amendment of the Irish constitutional claim to a united Ireland may not be tackled until after the declaration. British sources said that Ireland's constitutional claim to the north was 'one of the big issues that cannot happen very quickly. It may be that it is not entirely resolved before we agree a joint declaration'.
That appears to be a concession to Mr Reynolds who has argued that constitutional issues should be tackled after a peace declaration.
However it raises the prospect of a joint statement without sufficiently detailed proposals to win over republicans in the south or unionists in the north.
John Major has resisted any move to recognise the value of the goal of a united Ireland, arguing that this would place the Government in the role of a 'persuader'. But without this pledge - which would be anathema to unionists - Mr Reynolds is unlikely to be able to deliver a change in his country's constitutional claim to Northern Ireland.
The British Government is also understood to have resisted Irish calls for a permanent convention of politicians from the south and north - including Sinn Fein after a renunciation of violence - working to produce a settlement acceptable to all parties. This plan is unacceptable to the British because the existence of an all- Ireland forum would be seen to pre-judge the outcome of a settlement.
In a departure from previous statements, British government sources indicated flexibility over an amnesty for convicted terrorists. The source said: 'We are not in the business of amnesties', but added: 'if there is a cessation of violence it is for the talks process to consider questions like that. We expect everyone to obey the law'.
Some Ulster Unionist MPs believe that the issue of an amnesty could be tackled by a gradual, unspoken, policy of commuting sentences of convicted terrorists. This would be achieved over a period of years and would also include loyalist terrorists.
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