The Prime Minister appealed to the IRA to resume the ceasefire with an assurance that the all-party talks on will be "serious". But his remarks in the Commons underlined growing British fears that the IRA could leave it until the 11th hour before calling a tactical cessation of violence to allow Sinn Fein to gain admission to the negotiations.
Behind the Prime Minister's remarks lies the clear threat that ministers could still seek to block Sinn Fein's admittance if the ceasefire is seen as an empty gesture. Mr Major said there was "no reason whatsoever for the IRA not to stay their violence immediately".
He said: "The all party negotiations will be serious and will start on 10 June . . . they will gain nothing by waiting."
In spite of the Prime Minister's appeal, the British and Irish Governments are at loggerheads over the plan put forward by Dick Spring, the Irish Foreign Minister, for the decommissioning of IRA weapons to be hived off into separate talks on 10 June.
It was strongly attacked by David Trimble, the Ulster Unionist Leader, after it was raised in the Independent by Mr Spring. "I think Mr Spring is making a mistake . . . It's quite unnecessary. We have already been there. We set up an international commission by Senator George Mitchell to deal with decommissioning. My impression is the Irish Government are dragging their heels."
Mo Mowlam, Labour's spokeswoman on Northern Ireland, said Mr Spring's proposals were "entirely in keeping with the (Mitchell) report and provide the most sensible way to proceed".
The Government has refused to say anything officially about the Spring proposals to avoid causing a crisis before the all-party talks, but they now hang in the balance, and Ms Mowlam's remarks put pressure on the Government to intensify its efforts to reach a compromise which will bring the Unionists and Sinn Fein to the negotiating table.
Downing Street refused to commit the Prime Minister to opening the talks, in spite of the request to do so by Dublin. Ministers have refused to endorse the Spring plans because the Ulster Unionists oppose them. London has told Dublin that Mr Spring's ideas will not work if they are not accepted by the Unionists.
Mr Trimble said the Ulster Unionists had shifted from their demand for decommissioning before the all-party talks with Sinn Fein to accept parallel decommissioning, as recommended by the Mitchell report.
But the Ulster Unionists object to the Dublin proposals because it appears they would involve a separate set of talks. Irish sources said that was not the intention and British ministers were last night seeking a compromise to allow the talks to make progress on 10 June, if Sinn Fein is admitted.
"They are all engaged in electioneering at the moment. The remarkable thing is the Unionists have accepted the Mitchell report, which includes parallel decommissioning. We are looking for a way through the problem," said one ministerial source.
Fergus Finlay, a political adviser to Mr Spring, was accused by Roy Beggs, the Ulster Unionist MP, of saying the talks would be a waste of time without Sinn Fein. He called on Mr Major for an assurance that the talks would still have influence if Sinn Fein did not attend.
The Prime Minister assured MPs that the talks would go ahead, if Sinn Fein did not attend. "If there is no credible, clear cut and certain ceasefire, Sinn Fein can in no sense claim to be a democratic party."Reuse content