Major and Reynolds try to paper over cracks: Progress needed on draft declarations if prime ministers are to meet this week

JOHN MAJOR and the Taoiseach, Albert Reynolds, are trying to repair damage inflicted to Anglo- Irish relations by close-to-disastrous diplomatic encounters at the weekend.

Inter-governmental negotiations aimed at the production of a peace declaration, which had been going well until that point, received a severe setback in Brussels.

Yesterday, the mood lightened slightly, but both believe that contact between the two prime ministers is necessary to clear the air completely.

The two governments had pencilled in today or Wednesday for a London summit to issue a peace declaration, but the feeling is that more work is needed to close the distance between them. A meeting later in the week remains a possibility, if progress can be made in the next few days.

Last week, the governments were working on draft declarations which, with more work, were considered to have the potential of inducing the IRA to lay down its arms. On the key issue of self-determination, one possible formula had the British Government acknowledging that the two parts of Ireland could respectively exercise their right to determination in an agreed manner.

The problem in Brussels arose from diplomatic meetings in which three senior Dublin officials negotiated with a single Downing Street diplomat. Both sides appear to have come away with the perception that the other had significantly hardened its position, making agreement much less likely.

Mr Major yesterday kept alive hopes of a pre-Christmas summit with Mr Reynolds by promising that both sides were seeking a 'balanced' joint declaration aimed at ending violence in the province. The two prime ministers are expected to review progress in a telephone call today.

But Mr Major warned that it was more important to get a declaration right than to get it in a particularly short time. And he openly acknowledged the possibility of failure by saying that if there were irreconcilable differences 'then we will have to come to the House and say it was not possible to come to the House and reach agreement. I hope that will not be the case'.

Mr Reynolds takes the view that issuing a declaration would only be worthwhile if it stood a reasonable chance of triggering a cessation of IRA violence. Both governments appear to agree, however, that such a declaration would have to be balanced in the sense of offering some reassurance to Unionists as well as having the desired effect on the IRA.

The term 'balanced' - used by Mr Major yesterday and indicating that any declaration should contain safeguards aimed at both Unionists and nationalists - has in the past been used much more frequently by Mr Reynolds.

British officials stuck to their line last night of 'cautious optimism' and predicted that a fresh summit was a virtual certainty. But some ministers were predicting that the chances of achieving a joint declaration leading to peace were less than even.