Major moves to allay Dublin's fears: Apprehensive Irish government given signal that its role in peace talks is secure, report Donald Macintyre and David McKittrick

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THE Prime Minister yesterday moved to allay Irish government worries that London is leaning towards a Unionist-dominated agenda in the political talks which he hopes to start in the near future.

John Major went some way to removing apprehension in Dublin that the 'framework of ideas' which Sir Patrick Mayhew, the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, proposes to issue in the next fortnight threatened to overtake the Downing Street declaration's emphasis on securing peace.

Mr Major said in the Commons that the Government proposed actively 'to carry forward political talks with the constitutional parties and the Irish government'. He added: 'We shall certainly continue to pursue the objectives of the joint declaration.'

Government sources yesterday explained that it was intended to produce a framework of ideas rather than specific proposals or a blueprint. But the timing of the move has clearly not been welcomed by Dublin, where ministers are still hopeful of eventually receiving a positive republican response to December's declaration.

There have also been worries in Dublin - which surfaced during fierce exchanges between Sir Patrick and Dick Spring, Minister for Foreign Affairs, at their meeting there on Friday - that the Government is seeking, in deference to the wishes of the Ulster Unionists, to limit talks to internal political institutions and a modest increase in cross-border co-operation.

Mr Spring issued a statement yesterday - before Mr Major's appearance in the Commons - saying it was important that Sir Patrick's planned paper should be directed to 'a comprehensive politicial settlement which addresses all the main relationships in accordance with . . . the joint declaration'.

The Taoiseach, Albert Reynolds, spelled out some time ago that he saw little or no prospect of success in inter-party talks unless a cessation of IRA violence had first been achieved. The Dublin feeling is that this new move amounts, to coin a phrase, to jumping the gun.

While both governments are at pains to avoid public signs of any split, it is clear that at the moment they have very different approaches. While Mr Major has been issuing robust challenges to Sinn Fein to respond to the declaration, and insisted there can be no clarification of it, Dublin has adopted a much softer tack.

Mr Reynolds has allowed Sinn Fein back on Irish television and radio after an absence of more than two decades and seems not to have objected to the issuing of a US visa to Gerry Adams, the Sinn Fein president. He has also addressed republican concerns in speeches, for example spelling out his definition of self-determination, and has written to Mr Adams.

Now London appears to be in the business of demonstrating that it is intent on making political progress in the absence of a Sinn Fein response, while Dublin would clearly prefer to perservere with the declaration first.

A woman was critically ill last night after being hit by a loyalist gunman who opened fire on a bus used by relatives of republican prisoners in Belfast. She was in a passing car with her husband when she was hit in the chest, arm and leg. He was grazed in the arm. The minibus driver was shot in the leg but managed to drive away when he was ambushed on the Springfield Road. The Ulster Volunteer Force later claimed responsibility.