Mayhew tries to calm fears : HOUSE OF COMMONS EXCHANGES : The Irish pea ce crisis

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The Independent Online
Sir Patrick Mayhew came under bitter attack from Unionist MPs in the Commons as he was obliged to make a statement on what he called "distorting leaks" of constitutional proposals for Northern Ireland. James Molyneaux, leader of the Ulster Unionists, said the concept of the framework document followed by talks with the political parties had been "wrecked", while his colleague David Trimble, MP for Upper Bann, accused Sir Patrick of being "totally disingenuous" in saying there would be no joint North-South authority.

William Ross said the process was "so damaged'' that whatever emerged would be immediately rejected by the Unionist population. What had been printed in the Times were the demands of the Irish government which would lead to an all-Ireland republic, claimed the UUP member for Londonderry East.

But Sir Patrick told him: "It is not the purpose of the British government to lead to a united Ireland for the very good reason that it would not stand a dog's chance of getting the consent that would be essential."

The Rev Ian Paisley, leader of the Democratic Unionists, said the leaked document was "an insult" to the majority in Northern Ireland. "The Secretary of State cannot expect any self-respecting Unionist to sit down at a table if that is going to be on theagenda. That is the price he has paid to get a deal with Gerry Adams and the IRA and Dublin."

Dismissing Mr Paisley's "familiar line", Sir Patrick said there had been no such deal. "What I have seen in the Times is a few selectively lifted phrases from a very long document that has been used in these negotiations. I reiterate that absolutely nothing will come forward for the approval of the people of Northern Ireland in a referendum unless and until it has the broad and wide agreement of the political parties, including Mr Paisley's own."

Lastly the consent of Parliament would be required. "That is the "triple lock" - parties, people, Parliament - the triple lock against imposition upon the people of Northern Ireland."

Sir Patrick said important work remained to be done on the document. Both London and Dublin earnestly hoped agreement could be reached, but consent would be the key.

For that reason no arrangements could be proposed for joint authority - "the British and Irish governments jointly running the affairs of Northern Ireland over the heads of its people" - or any North-South autonomous body. However, a body accountable to a Northern Ireland assembly making common cause in areas of mutual benefit might well get consent.

"These are matters of the greatest sensitivity and difficulty, even danger, in an area where fears and suspicions very understandably abound."

Sir Patrick said is was "simply not true" to conclude as the Times had done that the document brought the prospect of a united Ireland closer than at any time since partition in 1920. Tory MPs joined in condemnation of the leak which Sir Patrick judged was calculated to "destabilise and destroy" the peace and political process.

Labour and the Liberal Democrats both gave support to the Government approach. Marjorie Mowlam, shadow Northern Ireland Secretary, urged the Government to redouble its efforts with Dublin to produce a framework document soon.

Seamus Mallon, deputy leader of the SDLP, said the leak showed a "fairly cynical political game" was being played. "It is also a very deadly game because what is at stake is the peace that has been painstakingly created." He sought an assurance that the peace process would "not be derailed, either through the threat of force of arms ... or threat of electoral strength within this House".

Unionist MPs remained suspicious. Mr Molyneaux bid Sir Patrick heed his advice to initiate talks with the four main constitutional parties on how "we clear away the debris, and start building on structures based on democratic principles".