Inside Parliament: Saintly connections on all sides: Nationalists and Unionists vie over links with Saint Patrick - Paisley dubs him a Protestant and Briton and urges public holiday

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Saint Patrick brought a sort of unity to Northern Ireland questions yesterday as MPs invoked his example as a man of peace and vied with each other for a constituency connection with the patron saint.

Eddie McGrady brought greetings to all parts of the House from the Hill of Saint Patrick in his South Down constituency. Minutes later his SDLP colleague Seamus Mallon brought greetings from another Hill of Saint Patrick in Armagh.

Saint Patrick 'wisely chose to live and work' in the Newry and Armagh constituency and his decision to die in Downpatrick (South Down) was 'a matter of fine judgement on his part', Mr Mallon said.

From across the political and religious divide, Ian Paisley, a Free Presbyterian minister, said he also wanted to greet the House on Saint Patrick's Day. The Secretary of State for Northern Ireland could do a good service 'for once' by declaring it a public holiday, the Antrim North MP said.

'That would please the nationalists because they think Saint Patrick was a Roman Catholic, and it would please the Protestants because they know he was a Protestant and a Briton.'

Sir James Kilfedder, the sole Ulster Popular Unionist, brought greetings from his constituency, North Down - 'where Saint Patrick landed . . . He was a distinguished Briton who returned to Northern Ireland.

'It is appropriate on Saint Patrick's Day to remember the utter and unqualified condemnation he made of the murderers in his day in Ireland who he described as 'wishing to gorge themselves on blood'. Not only did he condemn those murderers to hell and damnation but also those who acquiesced in such murder. His words apply as much today as they did 15 centuries ago.' The Secretary of State, Sir Patrick Mayhew, agreed. And as MP for Tunbridge Wells, he added: 'I cannot pretend to represent the place where Saint Patrick landed or the various places he was buried. I can only claim to be named after him.'

Sir Patrick does not have the hellfire style of his saint or some Unionist MPs, but in his way insisted that the Anglo-Irish peace initiative would not be wrecked by the mortar attacks at Heathrow.

'If Sinn Fein or the Provisional IRA consider that they are going by violence to secure a departure from the declaration or any concession from the British government they would be better employed taking a running jump at themselves. 'There is to be no concession, no departure (from the Downing Street Declaration),' he said.

But the abiding Unionist suspicion of the Northern Ireland Office was underlined, somewhat ingeniously, by William McCrea, Democratic Unionist MP for Mid Ulster, during exchanges on privatisation. 'Surely, if privatisation is regarded as a policy in the interests of the community, privatisation of the NIO would be a very popular one, cleaning out a nest of those who flirt with our political enemies and privately negotiate with those who are our murdering foes?'

Minus the bloody overtones, Tory Eurosceptics are similarly suspicious of the negotiations over voting in an enlarged European Union. Their tactic has been to praise Douglas Hurd's defence of Britain's blocking power in the kind of heroic terms that suggest any concession by the Foreign Secretary would be unthinkable. The sceptic Roger Knapman, MP for Stroud, congratulated John Major 'on his robust stance on qualified majority voting to date. It will be in the best interests of both the country and the party if that robust stance is maintained.'

Mr Major said the Foreign Secretary was in the middle of a negotiation that was 'important for the European Community and for us'. And in what MPs took as a rebuke to the sceptics, he added: 'I have no intention of being moved by synthetic efforts at pressure from any source. We shall defend the country's best interests in those negotiations, and I am entirely confident that that can be done in an acceptable way without any question of delaying enlargement.'

Later, as MPs debated a motion fixing their Easter holidays, John Biffen, former Tory cabinet minister and sceptic sage, said parliamentarians had a very real interest in the size of the voting combinations on the Council of Ministers. The check on the 'legislative cascade' from Brussels had to be kept as tight as possible.

That was why he was 'so anxious' Mr Hurd maintained his stance, Mr Biffen said. But from across the chamber Dennis Skinner, Labour MP for Bolsover, voiced the sceptics' fear: 'He's going to sell out.'

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