The Irish Peace Process: Diplomatic snub sours opening of Dublin forum: 'Unionist sensitivities' suggested as reason for British non-attendance at reconciliation meeting

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The Irish government reacted angrily yesterday to what was seen as a diplomatic snub when no British representative turned up at the opening of the forum for peace and reconciliation in Dublin Castle.

Britain was the only major country not to send its ambassador in an observer capacity. Peter Temple-Morris, co-chairman of the British-Irish parliamentary group, said Britain 'had to be aware of Unionist sensitivities', but he was careful not to rule out attendance at a later date.

Last night, Dick Spring, the Irish deputy premier, said he had still received no formal explanation from the British. 'I would have thought that given the statement by Mr Major last week that they had made a 'working assumption' that the ceasefire is permanent then the ambassador would have been able to attend today.'

By coincidence, the Irish President, Mary Robinson, currently in the New York, yesterday met and shook hands with Loyalist leaders Gusty Spence and Gary McMichael of the Ulster Democratic Party.

Judge Catherine McGuinness, the Belfast-born Protestant who is chairing the forum, said she was 'extremely sorry' that Britain had failed to send its ambassador.

The Taoiseach's department confirmed that all ambassadors in Dublin received invitations. A Downing Street spokeswoman said: 'Our understanding is that there was never any intention that the British would be taking part.'

The Taoiseach, Albert Reynolds, played down the snub but added 'only they (the British) can explain why no one is here'. The non-attendance was widely seen as hinging on the difficulty of attending any function involving Sinn Fein when London has yet to open a formal dialogue.

Speculation that other difficulties involved an impasse in negotiations on the joint framework document on the political future of Northern Ireland was reinforced by Mr Reynolds's opening address.

He warned: 'Any framework that is not even-handed and that leans too heavily towards one community rather than another, and does not adequately reflect legitimate aspirations on either side, is doomed to failure.'

Official sources in Dublin have made clear that the Irish are prepared to allow changes in the constitutional claim over the North to be put to voters as a quid pro quo for changing the Government of Ireland Act, along with the creation of cross-border institutions with executive powers.

Mr Reynolds said such bodies should take control of investment, tourism, and many elements of agriculture, fisheries, energy, communications and environmental matters.

A European package of assistance for Northern Ireland following the IRA and loyalist ceasefires is due to be unveiled at a summit of European Union leaders in Essen in December.

Hundreds of millions of pounds could be pumped into the province in the next few years to enhance the peace process with investment to aid economic stimulation, create jobs and bring down barriers.

(Photograph omitted)