Inside Parliament: Worried Ulster Unionists twice reassured: Hume-Adams scheme fuels 'paranoia' - Newton draws fine line between tax and national insurance - Bottomley finds an ally

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Indy Politics
Twice within 10 seconds yesterday, according to his own reckoning, Sir Patrick Mayhew, Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, tried to reassure near- paranoid Ulster Unionists that the Government continues to stand by the right of the people of the province to decide their own destiny.

With the Hume-Adams peace plan and moves towards a possible IRA ceasefire dominating Question Time, William Ross, Ulster Unionist MP for Londonderry East, said the people of Northern Ireland had learnt 'from bitter experience' that speculation was usually true.

A report in the Irish Times this week said the Hume-Adams plan asked Albert Reynolds, the Irish Prime Minister, to persuade John Major to reconvene talks between the Ulster parties as a first step towards a ceasefire - with the Unionists having no veto on talks.

John Hume, leader of the mainly Catholic Social Democratic and Labour Party, took no part in the exchanges. But Mr Ross, from the bench immediately behind him, said the plan was 'nothing less than an IRA demand for total surrender'. Talks between the parties last year had clarified respective positions; so why did Sir Patrick go on talking about further talks?

Sir James Kilfedder, the sole Popular Unionist MP, said that Gerry Adams, president of Sinn Fein, 'the political wing of the IRA', had declared in a recent television interview that the British government 'would have to sue for peace, and moreover that the Unionist majority in Northern Ireland would not have a decisive say in the future of the province'.

As a former attorney general, Sir Patrick treads, in his replies, as though he were walking on egg shells. He told Sir James that in general he did not comment on what other people had said. He had 'not had the advantage of the text' of the Hume-Adams plan to which Mr Ross referred, and nor did he go on talking about talks. 'At the end of the talks process in November last year all parties agreed that there was a need for further dialogue. Mr Ross referred to talks. It was further dialogue that everybody agreed should continue.' Immediate round-table talks would be 'counter-productive'.

Sir Patrick reaffirmed that it was for the people of Northern Ireland to decide as a basic democratic right what their future was to be. 'The Government will continue to back the democratic wishes of the people of Northern Ireland.' Immediately, Peter Robinson, Democratic Unionist MP for Belfast East, invited a re-run, asking if Sir Patrick found the proposals in the Irish Times acceptable or if he stood by his 'often-repeated remark' on self-determination.

'The latest repetition of my often-repeated remark occurred about 10 seconds ago, so naturally I stand by it. I think it is unwise to speculate about a matter which has not been communicated to the British government.' Ultimately the Unionists derived most reassurance from Sir Patrick's reply to Mr Hume's SDLP colleague, Seamus Mallon, MP for Newry and Armagh. The Hume-Adams plan was a sincere attempt to bring an end to the violence in the north of Ireland, Mr Mallon said.

He sought an assurance that if there was 'the slightest chance of peace that Sir Patrick will take that opportunity and not let it slip; that as Secretary of State he will not allow short-sighted intransigence or the veil of self-righteousness or his deal with the Ulster Unionists to keep them (the Conservatives) in power to stand in the way . . . of the peace that the people of the north of Ireland crave for and deserve.'

Sir Patrick said there was one thing that would secure peace - a declaration by the Provisional IRA and by other terrorists 'that the perpetration of violence is over and is over for good; not a question of a ceasefire with the threat of a temporary relief; for good. That is what is needed.

'Therefore I do not agree with what Mr Mallon implies that peace, in his terms, at any price, should be pursued.

'If that message comes and enough time elapses for it to be established in sceptical minds that it is for real then we are at the beginning of a new phase.'

Linguistic niceties were also the stuff of Prime Minister's Question Time, though on the more mundane subject of national insurance contributions.

Standing in for Mr Major at the Commonwealth summit in Cyprus, Tony Newton, Leader of the House, tried to deny that NICs - due to rise to 10 per cent in April - were a tax on income.

Margaret Beckett, Labour's deputy leader, said there was no effective difference on the pay packet between a penny in the pound on income tax or on NICs. 'Next April the Government is putting up both taxes on income and taxes on spending (VAT) and hasn't the guts to admit it.'

For a minister who seemed most at home in his years dealing with the detail of social security, this was too easy.

There was a very clear difference, he maintained. NICs were 'the means by which people obtain entitlement to certain benefits including, most notably, retirement pensions'. Mr Newton managed, as usual, not to inflame the House.

Virginia Bottomley announced the scrapping of regional health authorities, though in subsequent exchanges MPs seemed more interested in the Secretary of State for Health's dress sense and where she shops than in streamlining NHS management. It was, after all, only the greatest NHS reform since the last one.

On Wednesday it emerged that Mrs Bottomley had asked Marks and Spencer's Marble Arch store to open early for her. For Dennis Skinner, Labour MP for Bolsover, this was a mark of supreme arrogance. It was 'something Thatcher and the Queen have never demanded'.

Mrs Bottomley let the jibe pass without response, but then the loyal Roger Sims, Tory MP for Chislehurst, told her: 'The results of your shopping expeditions are much appreciated on both sides of the House.'

The minister's face began to co- ordinate with her blood orange coloured suit.

'I think it was only a month or two back when I was being castigated for buying my clothes in second-hand shops supported by mental health charities in my constituency,' she confided. 'But I was very grateful to Marks and Sparks for offering to let me come in early.'