The Government was pressing ahead with its compromise plan in the hope that the hostility will fade, and that IRA will be persuaded by Sinn Fein to restore the ceasefire. The plan is to be put to the Cabinet for approval today and a statement is expected in the Commons.
Underlining the trouble the Government is facing, Whitehall sources said last night the statement could be followed by a more-detailed note on the form the elections will take, and consultations will continue on the groundwork paper issued last week, which made it clear that if no progress is made on decommissioning of weapons by the IRA, this would not be allowed to hold up debate on other issues.
Dick Spring, the Irish Foreign Minister, last night raised nationalist concerns about the British compromise in a meeting in Belfast with Sir Patrick Mayhew, the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland.
It also emerged last night that there was backtracking by Dublin on the idea of a peace referendum on both sides of the border at the same time as the elections to the forum. There were strong hints at Westminster that the Irish government had gone cold on the idea of the referendum because it would duplicate the elections.
John Major said the election plan would require the broad support of all the parties, but hints of the likely compromise had succeeded in uniting the parties against it.
Leaders of the Ulster Unionists will put the election plan to a meeting of the 600-strong Ulster Unionist Council in Belfast on Saturday, but senior members of the party in Westminster said last night that the compromise was unacceptable and warned they could help to bring down the Government. "The Government will hit a brick wall with this compromise," said William Ross, the Ulster Unionist MP for Londonderry East. "They have tried to offer something to everyone and failed to win over anyone."
In spite of the opposition, ministers believe the main parties will not boycott the elections. Labour's Northern Ireland spokeswoman, Mo Mowlam, proposed the hybrid system in the Independent on Sunday, and the Government is likely to count on Labour support. But some Tory MPs are warning they will vote against the Government on the legislation to set up the elections, if the Unionists remain opposed.
The British compromise is intended to meet the Ulster Unionists' demands for the elections to be based on the18 constituencies in Ulster, electing about 90 members to a forum, from which the negotiating teams will be appointed.
Whitehall also accepted the Unionists' demands for the forum to run alongside the negotiating teams. This was opposed by Dublin, which feared it would become a delaying tactic for the Ulster Unionists to keep talking.