Reynolds revives Ulster peace hopes

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THE IRISH prime minister, Albert Reynolds, last night raised hopes of progress towards peace in Northern Ireland by preparing his supporters for an amendment of the Republic's claims over the province.

Mr Reynolds told the Fianna Fail party's annual conference that the ideals of peaceful democratic republicanism had to adapt to a changed world. 'We must not be prisoners of history,' he added

In a clear hint that he is ready to back changes in the claim over Northern Ireland in Articles 2 and 3 of the Irish Constitution, Mr Reynolds said Dublin had no interest in forced unity which offered only a future of permanent instability.

'Peace cannot wait for a political settlement,' he said, arguing that political progress could happen once a ceasefire had been agreed.

Mr Reynolds's comments came as the European Union stepped into the peace process by backing John Hume, leader of the Social Democratic and Labour Party, whose peace plan has been rejected by the British Government.

Willy Claes, President of the Council of Ministers of the EU, praised the efforts undertaken by 'our friends John Hume, leader of the SDLP, and Dick Spring, Foreign Minister of the Republic of Ireland, to put an end to this tragedy'.

His comments mark the first time a senior European politician has become publicly involved in the current debates over the search for peace in Northern Ireland, and follow pressure from Mr Hume.

Mr Claes, who was speaking at a meeting in Brussels of the Party of European Socialists, of which the SDLP, the British Labour Party and Mr Spring's party are members, said: 'These comrades should know that they can count on our support on the road to peace.'

Mr Hume said that he was still optimistic about the chances for peace following his initiative to open negotiations with Gerry Adams, the Sinn Fein leader. 'I'm happy that it's being considered in detail at the highest level by both governments,' he said. 'They have a clear view of what I think will lead to a total cessation of violence.'

He reacted coolly to the most recent partial ceasefire offer from the IRA. 'I have made it clear from the beginning that my objective is a total cessation of violence,' he said. The IRA suggested that, if Protestant paramilitaries declared a ceasefire, it would 'monitor the situation and review our position towards those directly involved in the murder gangs'. Sources within the paramilitaries called for the IRA to cease violence first.

Mr Adams told a Sinn Fein conference that the Irish government's six principles, put forward by Mr Spring, failed to provide the basis for progress towards peace offered by his talks with Mr Hume.

The latest developments precede separate meetings this week that John Major will hold with Ian Paisley, leader of the Democratic Unionist Party, and James Molyneaux, leader of the larger Ulster Unionist Party.

Mr Major is hoping to encourage both men back into the 'three-stranded' peace process which broke down when Mr Paisley pulled out last year. He wants the leaders of all the constitutional parties in Northern Ireland to begin by taking part in regular bilateral meetings with the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, Sir Patrick Mayhew. These meetings - over which Mr Major might occasionally preside - would prepare common ground before the restoration of round-table talks.

If Mr Paisley refuses to take part in the process, as is expected, Mr Major will have to decide whether or not to go ahead without him.

Further reports, pages 10-11