Douglas Hurd, the Foreign Secretary, and Sir Patrick Mayhew, the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, yesterday joined forces to urge Sinn Fein - which holds its Ard Fheis in Dublin this weekend - to take advantage of the two governments' pledge that the province's future would be decided by 'self- determination.' In a lengthy and carefully worded speech which was said in Whitehall to amount - in all but name - to the 'clarification' that Gerry Adams, President of Sinn Fein, has been demanding from the British government, Sir Patrick emphasised British neutrality on the long-term future of Northern Ireland.
Using language designed to appeal directly to republican opinion, Sir Patrick argued that advocacy of the declaration by Albert Reynolds, the Irish Taoiseach, 'in no way departed from the classic nationalist position that the partition of Ireland was wrong'.
Instead, Sir Patrick argued in a speech in Birmingham, Mr Reynolds had been saying that 'holding the view that partition was wrong in 1920-21 could not justify trying to achieve Irish unity by force 70 years later. It had to be worked for peacefully, and achieved by consent. That was what he was saying.'
Sir Patrick strongly rejected appeals from within both communities to be 'persuaders' for one outcome or another in the process of negotiations. Instead, he said, the British government would encourage both sides to 'prefer agreement to disagreement'.
Sir Patrick emphasised that the 'most striking and historic feature of the declaration', particularly from the nationalist point of view, was 'its explicit treatment of the principle of self-determination'.
He repeated that Britain had no 'economic or strategic concerns which would lead us selfishly to stymie the people's exercise of their free political will'. And he said the North-South joint institutions, which were envisaged as part of talks that would go ahead with or without Sinn Fein, 'could take on an increasingly dynamic role'.
Mr Hurd said 97 per cent of the people in Ireland had supported the declaration when it was issued, according to market research.
It had the backing of Unionists, of nationalist leaders in Northern Ireland and the Republic, and of President Bill Clinton. Only Sinn Fein had given no response, Mr Hurd said, adding: 'There are no good reasons for further delay.'