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Major targets nationalists with plea for Ulster peace

ON THE EVE of the Sinn Fein annual conference in Dublin, John Major has again pressed republicans to accept the Downing Street declaration and give up violence.

Writing in the Irish News, Belfast's nationalist newspaper, he promised that if violence ended, the British government would ensure power was exercised fairly and that civil rights were carefully protected.

His remarks are unlikely to have a significant influence on hardcore republicans, but appear to have been mainly designed to appeal to the wider nationalist community, most of which clearly wants the IRA campaign to end.

Appealing for a new beginning, Mr Major declared: 'Dreadful deeds have been done by all sides in past centuries. We should all regret that, but those of us alive today are not responsible for them.'

Responding to Sinn Fein demands for Britain to 'join the persuaders' and convince Unionists of the merits of Irish unity, the Prime Minister said it was not the Government's job to dictate to the Irish people or tell them what they should think. 'What we advocate is agreement, reached freely and democratically,' he wrote.

Mr Major said that while he could not predict the outcome of future talks, he was resolved that power must be exercised fairly with civil rights carefully protected. He also expected to see new institutions and new relationships reflecting common interests on the island. The British and Irish governments would build on their existing close partnership, he added.

The Prime Minister's action in contributing to the Irish News will be seen as more evidence of a softening of the general British government line, which has moved from initially haranguing Sinn Fein to a calmer tone.

A number of nationalist sources, including the Irish government and John Hume, the leader of the SDLP, have advised the Government to ease its stance that there can be no clarification of the declaration for Sinn Fein.

The Irish News itself yesterday characterised Mr Major's article as clarifying 'what the declaration is, what it is not, and what can be achieved politically if the violence stops'.

The two-day conference will be addressed by the Sinn Fein president Gerry Adams this afternoon. Tomorrow there are to be two debates on the peace process, one in public and one in private. Many of the resolutions for the public debate congratulate Mr Adams for his handling of party affairs.