Mayhew addresses Orange Lodge: Minister takes his mission to reassure to Unionist heartland. David McKittrick and Patricia Wynn Davies report

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The Independent Online
THE GOVERNMENT took attempts to reassure Unionists to unprecedented lengths last night when Sir Patrick Mayhew became the first Secretary of State for Northern Ireland to address a meeting of an Orange Lodge in an Orange hall. Sir Patrick delivered a lengthy speech to Orange brethren in Comber, Co Down, as part of his campaign to calm Protestant opinion in the wake of last week's IRA ceasefire.

Reiterating that the Prime Minister had given a 'cast-iron' guarantee that Northern Ireland's status would not change unless that was the democratically expressed wish of the majority of its people, Sir Patrick went on to dismiss suspicions that the British and Irish governments would impose joint authority over the province.

'It is quite a different matter to examine ways in which, without impinging on sovereignty, some North-South body would enable common cause to be made in areas of common interest,' he said.

Of the IRA ceasefire, he said: 'We shall watch what happens very carefully in the coming days and weeks . . . so that we can make a proper careful judgement on the right time to move forwards exploratory dialogue with Sinn Fein.'

The Orange Order, which is described by its critics as a sectarian body, has institutional links with the Ulster Unionist Party. One of the Order's leaders is James Molyneaux, who as leader of the Unionist party has in recent months been forging closer links with Mr Major as part of their parliamentary understanding. Secretaries of State for Northern Ireland attend many local functions, but since the office was created in 1972 they have carefully steered clear of the Orange Order, which is often regarded as a symbol of community divisions. Sir Patrick said last night: 'To achieve an agreement, all involved will need to show courage and vision . . . it does mean all of us need to be prepared to embrace new ideas, new institutional structures and imaginative approaches to constitutional and human rights issues.' He reminded his audience that the level of male Catholic unemployment is proportionately over twice that of male Protestants.

The US vice-president Al Gore yesterday telephoned Mr Molyneaux and John Hume, the SDLP leader, to assure them of continuing US goodwill for the peace process.

Meanwhile, Mr Major yesterday insisted that the IRA was 'inching' towards declaring it had renounced violence permanently but had yet to deliver a 'clear-cut, unequivocal' assurance.

The Prime Minister later emphasised in a Dutch television interview that it was too early to talk of removing British troops from the streets of Northern Ireland, although Sir Patrick Mayhew announced that security had been scaled down.

But Mr Major added: 'Once we are clear that violence has ended a whole range of options are open to us', signalling that the broadcasting ban covering Sinn Fein would be lifted at that point.