Mayhew ready to kick-start talks: The Government is seeking ways to break the Ulster stalemate. David McKittrick reports

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THE Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, Sir Patrick Mayhew, attempted yesterday to rekindle the fading interest in political talks by suggesting that, for the first time, the Government might be prepared to show something of its own hand.

Sir Patrick was responding to criticism, following last year's unsuccessful talks, for the Government to move away from its stance as a disinterested ringmaster. Sir Patrick and his predecessor, Peter Brooke, have repeatedly said there is no British blueprint and that their interest lay in finding common ground among the Northern Ireland parties.

But yesterday, in an interview with the Irish Times, he signalled a new tack by saying: 'We don't have a nice tidy blueprint, but I think now that if the talks are to resume, perhaps the time has come for the British Government to give them some shape and direction by perhaps putting upon the table a scheme which people might wish to comment upon and say: 'Well, we can take A and B of this, but C and D are more difficult' . . . If it is genuinely felt that the British Government ought to give a steer in that way, I would not wish to obstruct the resumption by saying no.'

Sir Patrick and his Dublin counterpart, Dick Spring, the Irish foreign affairs minister, have made it clear that they hope to resume the talks process in the near future. Their hopes were echoed by the Prime Minister last night at a reception outside Hillsborough Castle in Co Down. He said: 'We would like the talks to start again as soon as possible. They made tremendous progress, more I think than many people realise, more than many people expected.'

At the moment, the Northern Ireland parties are preoccupied with preparing for the local council elections next month, and it is unrealistic to think of moves towards talks before polling day. The election campaign, although low-key, has been marked by a number of inter- party clashes. In particular, the DUP, never noted for restraint and moderation, has launched attacks on both the British and Irish governments. It has also attacked the Ulster Unionist Party, its partner in the talks, for alleged willingness to 'sell out' to nationalist demands.

All this has led to a deterioration in the political atmosphere. Most ominously for the talks, DUP leaders declare they will not return to the table until Dublin makes a major concession on the issue of Articles 2 and 3 of the Irish constitution (claiming jurisdiction over Northern Ireland). The Ulster Unionist Party has made similar noises.

Mr Spring has made it clear Articles 2 and 3 will not be given away before discussions start, but in recent speeches he has signalled a willingness to be more flexible than was the previous administration.

Sir Patrick is banking on a different nationalist attitude next time round. If the talks do re-start, his primary concern apparently will be to apply pressure to the SDLP to move from its plan to have Northern Ireland run by a commission, which would include representatives of Dublin and the EC.

The SDLP will not easily abandon this scheme, which it sees as giving practical effect to its argument that Northern Ireland should not be regarded as a purely British entity. The scheme is certainly unacceptable to Unionists since it is at odds with their general aim of strengthening, rather than weakening, the union between Northern Ireland and Britain.

What is certain is that no accommodation will be found without major shifts in the positions of both sides.

Letters, page 19

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