Major under pressure to speed up the peace process: Loyalists seize initiative with call for 'a little injection of pace' during TV link-up with Sinn Fein official

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PRESSURE on the Government to instil more momentum into the Irish peace process mounted at the weekend as loyalist paramilitary groups signalled they believed that John Major, the Prime Minister, could move faster.

The loyalists took their own initiative when David Ervine of the Progressive Unionist Party - which is linked to the Ulster Volunteer Force - appeared on a television programme with Martin McGuinness of Sinn Fein. This followed weekend statements from James Molyneaux, the Ulster Unionist leader, who made it clear he had no objection to the Government opening exploratory talks - that would involve civil servants and intelligence agencies - with Sinn Fein 'fairly soon'. Mr Ervine, interviewed on BBC television by David Frost, said: 'I think the British Government have got it about right at the moment, but a little injection of pace now would help, so that we don't leave a vacuum.'

These Unionist and loyalist attitudes clearly leave Mr Major, who has been under nationalist pressure to move the peace process along for some time, considerable room to manoeuvre. Sinn Fein president, Gerry Adams, who returned to Ireland at the weekend after a lengthy tour of the US and Canada, accused Mr Major of being 'hesistant, slow and reluctant', and of trying to slow the momentum for tactical reasons.

A similar view prevails in the Dublin government, though it is expressed in much more diplomatic language. Mr McGuinness, appearing on television with Mr Ervine, said he believed talks would take place in the next few weeks, saying that he would be willing to talk to Mr Ervine 'tomorrow morning'. Mr Ervine responded: 'Not tomorrow morning. We've got to move slowly. I certainly am keen at some time to represent my views to the nationalist people, but the atmosphere must be correct. Let's be careful whose agenda we're following here and take our time.'

It has been widely reported that the Government will shortly announce that it is making a 'working assumption' that the IRA ceasefire is permanent.

With both the Conservative and Ulster Unionist party conferences out of the way, the Government is said to feel freer about making such a move. Mr Molyneaux's relationship with Mr Major, which has developed since it became clear the Government sought Unionist support in key Commons votes, has proved of great benefit to both parties.

Mr Molyneaux's party conference at the weekend warmly endorsed his performance. With Mr Molyneaux on hand to endorse movement in the process - though always at a slower pace than Dublin would prefer - Mr Major has been able to take steps with a greatly reduced risk of stirring a loyalist backlash.

But last week's loyalist ceasefire, and the striking new openness on the part of loyalist spokesmen, in any event means that the Protestant paramilitary groups have, at a stroke, stopped being a threat to the process and instead become an enthusiastic component of it.

(Photograph omitted)