Inside Parliament: Mayhew maintains neutrality on Ulster

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Sir Patrick Mayhew, Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, reaffirmed the Government's neutrality on the issue of a united Ireland as he and the Prime Minister faced MPs on the eve of today's Anglo- Irish meeting in Dublin.

John Major repeated that the status of Northern Ireland would not change without the freely expressed consent of its people. But both he and Sir Patrick were pressed to endorse the kind of declaration being sought by Albert Reynolds, the Irish prime minister.

Echoing Mr Reynolds, Richard Burden, Labour MP for Birmingham Northfield, asked Sir Patrick if he accepted 'that the Irish people have a right to national self-determination, based on consent freely given, north and south?'

Sir Patrick said what was of most immediate importance for those concerned with stability in Ulster was a thorough understanding that the Government stood firmly behind the wishes of the people of Northern Ireland on their constitutional status. Mr Major told Paddy Ashdown that this was the fundamental point for the Government. The Liberal Democrat leader said the country was waiting to back the Prime Minister if he would take further risks for peace.

Sir James Kilfedder, the sole Popular Unionist MP, warned that it 'would be a great mistake for the media or anybody else to interpret the present yearning for peace as a movement for appeasement. The majority of Ulster people want peace, they want political progress and they want the best of relations with the Irish republic, but not at the cost of weakening their position within the UK.'

Without deigning to mention Dublin, James Molyneaux, leader of the Ulster Unionists, told Sir Patrick that 'in response to any inquiries from foreign parts', he should make clear that the aim of the informal discussions being pursued by the junior minister, Michael Ancram, was to restore accountable democracy in the province. 'And that that is the necessary first step to restoring stability and subsequently peace.'

The Labour spokesman Kevin McNamara asked if Sir Patrick accepted 'the value of the goal of a united Ireland?' He thought it 'a naively loaded question' and said 'one needs to be careful when speaking in language that attrib utes value to a particular notion.

'What the British government cannot do is to join the ranks of the persuaders. Here we certainly differ from the Labour Party who wish to persuade the people of Northern Ireland to leave the UK and join a united Ireland. We believe it should be for the people of Northern Ireland to determine for themselves without persuasion from us whether they remain in the UK.'

Sir Patrick came under further attack from the Democratic Unionists. Peter Robinson accused him of 'stretching credulity beyond breaking point' over secret contacts with the IRA. And William McCrea, joining expressions of sympathy for the family of the soldier shot dead by a sniper in South Armagh, added: 'While this House condemns a soldier's death today, there will be someone from the Government speaking to their murderers tomorrow.'

The rest of the Commons day was devoted to more prosaic political struggle over the Budget. John Gummer, Secretary of State for the Environment, fixed council spending for 1994-95 in England at pounds 42.66bn, of which pounds 34.32bn will be grant from central government.

The local government finance settlement is always a fiendishly complex business. Taking Mr Gummer at his word, the settlement is 'balanced and reasonable' and will allow a 2.3 per cent increase in local authority spending. Taking Jack Straw, Labour's environment spokesman, at his, council taxes will rise on average by four times the rate of inflation, public services will be cut and jobs lost.

Mr Straw said Treasury figures showed that Mr Gummer had 'surrendered' pounds 860m next year and pounds 1.5bn the year after - 'a cut three times greater than any other minister has conceded'. But Mr Gummer replied: 'It is the first time I have heard that a rise is a cut - except in Mr Straw's mathematics.'

John Smith, the Labour leader, tackled the Prime Minister on the decisions to raise National Insurance Contributions by 1 per cent while halving entitlement to unemployment benefit to six months. 'It is a fraud on the public,' Mr Smith said. 'Why not attack unemployment, instead of attacking the unemployed?'

But the Prime Minister was only interested in attacking Mr Smith. 'While he becomes indignant in his usual fashion . . . will he drop the policies that would make people unemployed that he parades month after month? If he will not, what has he to say to John Prescott, who said of the national minimum wage: 'I knew the consequences were that there would be a shakeout in unemployment. Any silly fool knew that'. Well not quite any silly fool, it seems.'

Mr Prescott starred later during the Budget debate in his new role as shadow employment secretary. He began by welcoming a plan to spend pounds 1.25bn over three years on a modern apprenticeship scheme.

Then normal hostilities resumed. The rise in share prices was proof it was a Budget for the City, not jobs. 'Welcome back the City and the casino economy,' Mr Prescott said, provoking an intervention from Kenneth Clarke. Shares had been boosted because investors thought the outlook for the economy was improved by the Budget, the Chancellor said, adding, somewhat unoriginally, that Mr Prescott had 'a Neanderthal approach' to the free market.

(Photograph omitted)

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