Inside Parliament: Opposition smells something fishy

Mayhew avoids `Ulster deal' claims / Blair taunts Major on Euro rebels
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Indy Politics
Sir Patrick Mayhew, Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, was warned against "sacrificing peace for political expediency" yesterday as he repeatedly avoided questions on a secret deal with the Ulster Unionists to prop up John Major's "minority"


The growing suspicion among opposition parties of a Unionist veto over the contents of the framework document on Northern Ireland's future was fuelled by the sop offered by William Waldegrave in advance of Wednesday's fisheries vote.

With defeat looming, Mr Waldegrave promised that the arrangements being worked out by London and Dublin would not include a joint North-South agency for marine fisheries. Six of the nine Unionists subsequently voted with Government, ensuring it scraped home.

First to raise the issue at Question Time yesterday was David Winnick, Labour MP for Walsall North. It was important if the ceasefire was to last that the Government did not abandon the creation of meaningful joint cross-border bodies, he said. But therewas a "grave suspicion" after Wednesday night that they would be abandoned in order buy Unionist votes.

Sir Patrick judged that a "cynical conclusion", but as the exchanges continued it appeared widely shared and one which the Secretary of State did not deny.

John Hume, leader of the SDLP and an architect of the peace process, said that "private agreements and private promises for the internal politics of this House would be utterly irresponsible". Sir Patrick replied that as consent was the basis for stability in the future, "there is no point in the Government taking any course that is not likely to be sustained by consent".

Mo Mowlam, Labour's Northern Ireland spokeswoman, accused him of avoiding the question, while David Alton, Liberal Democrat MP for Mossley Hill, told the House: "Sir Patrick's failure to say that the Government is not in some specific agreement with one party in this House will be read as confirmation that it is."

Seamus Mallon, SDLP MP for Newry and Armagh, said there was a perception in the nationalist community that there was Government-Unionist front at work. "It is bad for the Government to have its nose tweaked by the Unionists almost on a daily basis. Will Sir Patrick confirm that the Government will not respond to those bullying tactics every week? Will he confirm that the peace process will not be sacrificed by this Government to satisfy their own party political expediencies within the Commons?"

Sir Patrick assured Mr Mallon: "Peace will not be sacrificed by this Government." It had done more to achieve peace that any government in the last 25 years. And, thinking of himself perhaps as a latter-day Cyrano de Bergerac, he added: "I have got a rather large nose. I am not conscious of it being tweaked by anyone."

Repercussions of the fish vote - a consequence of an EU decision to allow Spanish boats into traditionally British fishing grounds - spilled over into Prime Minister's questions as Tony Blair pressed Mr Major to say on what basis the nine Tory Euro-rebels could regain the party whip.

Seven whipless ones were among Tories who voted against the Government and the other two abstained or did not vote. Yesterday morning they compounded their sins with the publication of a "manifesto" which Mr Blair said would effectively mean Britain's withdrawal from Europe.

The Prime Minister said: "There are many and varied views on European policy in all political parties and right across the country ... In the next few months we will spell out not only what is not acceptable in the [EU] Inter-Governmental Conference, butwhat we wish to achieve in the IGC in 1996."

The Labour leader took the reply to mean that Mr Major would not even repudiate the views of the rebels though it was he who had the whip withdrawn from them. "The Prime Minister's problem is that he has got one side of the Conservative Party that is hostile to Europe with its friends in the Cabinet, the other side of the Conservative Party that is favourable to Europe with its friends in the Cabinet, and himself in the middle never making up his mind."

Charles Hendry, Conservative MP for High Peak, struggled to turn the tables by pointing out that Neil Kinnock, the former Labour leader, had returned from Brussels to vote against the Government and the fisheries deal.

It was Mr Kinnock's last Commons vote. Taking up his post as EU transport commissioner on £140,000 a year, he yesterday set in motion procedures to resign as an MP after 25 years. Mr Hendry wanted Mr Major to comment on the rules of corporate responsibility, claiming Mr Kinnock "undermined" his fellow commissioners and his wife, Glenys, an MEP. But the Speaker, Betty Boothroyd, allowed no reply, saying how Mr Kinnock voted was nothing to do with the Prime Minister.

She did say whether the same was true for the Ulster Unionists.