Ministers' response to the meeting in Dublin between Gerry Adams and Albert Reynolds came early yesterday, to be followed by the drama of John Major terminating, within minutes, a meeting with the Rev Ian Paisley, leader of the Democratic Unionists, who was in effect thrown out of Downing Street.
Amid a welter of conflicting criticism sparked by the apparent haste of the 90-minute meeting between Sinn Fein's president and the Taoiseach - and despite clear Dublin irritation at the British attitude - Mr Major and senior ministers earlier resolved to renew the call for the IRA to clarify its ceasefire statement.
That got the backing of the Labour leader, Tony Blair. Taking a similar line to Number 10 - that the meeting was a 'matter for the Irish Government', Mr Blair said: 'I don't think the (British) government is dragging behind if it takes a more cautious approach when it has always made it clear that the preconditions for any involvement of Sinn Fein, or indeed any party which has been espousing violence up to now, is that there is a proper period of time in which a renunciation of violence can be tested.'
Number 10 declined to be moved despite the joint statement from Mr Adams, Mr Reynolds and John Hume, leader of the SDLP, pledging they were 'totally and absolutely committed to democratic and peaceful methods of resolving our political problems'.
But despite signs of being caught on the hop over the timing of the meeting, Downing Street was clearly striving to strike as positive a note as possible. The meeting of senior ministers 'welcomed the declaration of a complete cessation of violence', a source said. The Government had repeatedly made clear that it 'would be ready to enter into an exploratory dialogue with Sinn Fein within three months of a permanent ceasefire'.
David Trimble, Ulster Unionist MP for Upper Bann, said the Irish premier was rushing in with 'indecent, obscene haste' to dealings with Mr Adams. Towards the other end of the spectrum, John Hume, the SDLP leader, urged Mr Major and Sir Patrick Mayhew before the meeting to accept the IRA's word that it had renounced violence for good. 'Given the British government were talking secretly to the IRA when there was no talk of peace, I can't understand their reaction now.'
Mr Hume's presence at the meeting is further evidence that the clock is ticking in Dublin even if it remains silent in London. But it was seen in some Unionist quarters as evidence of an alleged 'deal' and of Dublin 'forcing the pace'. But Mr Hume questioned in a BBC interview whether some Tory politicians were 'playing politics with human life' by entering the debate. Dick Spring, the Irish foreign minister, said he could 'understand' the remark. He said: 'It would be important the British government move on now and move as quickly as possible so we wouldn't lose any momentum.'
Today, Lord Holme, the Liberal Democrat Northern Ireland spokesman, will urge the Government to combine the call for 'permanence' with a clear agenda of the future framework of the institutions in the province.
In contrast to the restrained reaction from ministers, Andrew Hunter, chairman of the Tory backbench Northern Ireland committee, called the meeting a 'disastrous miscalculation' on the part of Mr Reynolds and accused the Irish government of appeasement. 'The IRA is neither war-weary nor militarily defeated. It has not permanently and irrevocably renounced violence. It is playing a tactical game . . . Its rejection of Northern Ireland's constitutional status is undiminished,' he said.
The episode involving Mr Paisley leaves no doubt that the DUP will not join peace talks, but the Government hopes it will serve to underpin the stance of the more moderate James Molyneaux, leader of the Ulster Unionists.
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