Select committee offer to woo treaty support of Ulster MPs

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THE GOVERNMENT is preparing to offer a Commons select committee on Northern Ireland to the Ulster Unionists in return for their support to save John Major from a humiliating climbdown over the Maastrict treaty, writes Colin Brown.

The Ulster Unionists' support is being sought to defuse the Labour new clause 75 - described as a 'ticking time bomb' - which would delay the transfer of powers under the treaty until a further Commons vote on the Social Chapter.

The timing of the second vote is in doubt, but ministers are already preparing for a defeat in the first vote and are planning strategy for winning the second with the support of the Ulster Unionists and any Tory rebels who change sides. Ministerial sources confirmed yesterday that the main carrot being dangled before the Ulster MPs would be the promise of a select committee to shadow the Northern Ireland Office.

So far, the Ulster Unionists, who opposed the Maastricht treaty at the general election, have refused to support the Government on the Bill. However, ministers believe they will be prepared to back the Government in the final vote to stop the Social Chapter being adopted.

The Ulster MPs - nine UUP and three DUP MPs - led by James Molyneaux and three DUP MPs led by Ian Paisley - became an important voting bloc in the Commons when they opposed the pit closure programme. To win back their support, the leaders of all the Northern Ireland democratic parties including the Alliance, which has ve no seats in the Commons, met were given a meeting with the Prime Minister at Downing Street to discuss the fate of a local hospital, while John Patten, Secretary of State for Education, recently met the Ulster parties to discuss education policy.

The Government announced shortly before the vote that the go- ahead had been given for an electricity interconnector between Ulster and the mainland, and bulk users of electricity in Ulster would be given a pounds 10 million subsidy. The Ulster Unionists helped the Government win with a majority of 22.

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