The Secret IRA Meetings: Revelation 'body blow to Major': Premier's authority damaged by his risky enthusiasm for the 'great prize' of peace in Ulster

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The Independent Online
SENIOR Tory MPs said the disclosures of contacts with the IRA came as a body blow to John Major's authority, in spite of the show of support the Government can expect today in the Commons from Tory backbenchers.

'Frankly, I was shocked by it,' one Cabinet minister said. 'I thought we were following the line that there could be no talks with terrorists. I thought that was sensible. Now it seems to have changed.'

Other senior Tories privately said that while they backed a search for peace, including contacts with the IRA, the discovery that the repeated, vehement denials by the Prime Minister of talks with the IRA had proved untrue would be damaging for him and the Government.

The dismay at the disclosures extends to the executive of the 1922 Committee which was elected last week. Senior backbench Tory MPs said that Sir Patrick Mayhew, the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, would be given the support of the Tory backbench when he makes a statement to the Commons.

One 'mainstream' member of the 1922 Committee said the public protests would be limited to a few 'hardline' Unionists. Most Tory MPs would support Mr Major and Sir Patrick in contacts with the IRA to try to reach a peace deal, he said. With Labour last night avoiding any calls for Sir Patrick to resign, Tory MPs felt that he would not be forced out of office today.

One senior Tory MP said the disclosures would further undermine backbench confidence in Mr Major's leadership. 'If it gives a chance of peace, I have no objection with that. But it is very significant, because it comes after 12 months of retreats - on workfare, lone parents, 'back to basics', and even John Patten's 'Mother's army': what are we supposed to believe in?'

James Molyneaux's official Ulster Unionist Party MPs were reacting cautiously yesterday, but there were fears in the Tory party that it could put at risk the Government's accord with the nine Ulster Unionist MPs, making its Commons majority of 17 more precarious. One Thatcherite Tory MP commented: 'We carefully put together that understanding with Molyneaux's Ulster Unionists. You can kiss goodbye to that now. It's very serious. It could mean that Major is finished.'

A source close to John Smith said: 'We are not calling for Mayhew's resignation at this stage, because he has said there have been no negotiations. We are waiting to see the papers, which are to be published. If we find that he has been caught out, and that there have been negotiations, that would be very different.'

Paddy Ashdown, the Liberal Democrat leader, accused the Prime Minister of stupidity or duplicity, and said his credibility was 'on the line'. 'The disgrace does not lie in taking risks for peace - it lies in the denial of the truth and the repeated pungent public condemnation of those who were doing in public what the Government appears to have been doing in secret.'

----------------------------------------------------------------- DEATH AND DIALOGUE / CHRONOLOGY OF EVENTS ----------------------------------------------------------------- February 1993: Message passed to the Government from the IRA allegedly saying conflict is over. 20 March: IRA bomb in Warrington kills two children. 22 March: Meeting between Sinn Fein and person acting for the Government. 25 March: Ulster Freedom Fighters shoot five Catholics in Derry. April: John Hume and Gerry Adams begin secret talks. 5 April: Loyalist terrorist shot dead in his Belfast home. 24 April: IRA bomb in City of London causes much damage. 21 June: IRA shoots Belfast taxi driver. 8 August: Son of Sinn Fein councillor shot dead in Belfast. 1 September: Two killed by gunmen in Belfast. 3 September: Ulster Volunteer Force kills prison officer in Belfast. 8 September: Hairdresser shot dead by UFF. 17 September: IRA kills builder in Lisburn, Co Antrim. 12 October: Catholic killed near Shorts aircraft factory. 16 October: Hume and Adams publicly defend their talks. 21 October: IRA shoots construction firm manager. 23 October: Nine die in IRA bomb in Shankill Road. Catholic shot in revenge. 25 October: Pensioner killed in loyalist revenge shooting. 26 October: Loyalists murder two Catholic dustbin men. 28 October: Two Catholic brothers shot dead in Belfast. 29 October: John Major and Albert Reynolds, the Irish Premier, agree to relaunch peace talks. 30 October: UVF kills seven in Greysteel pub massacre. 2 November: RUC officer dies in hospital after being shot by IRA sniper. Last communication received from the IRA. 4 November: Mr Major meets leaders of Ulster's political parties. 5 November: The Government replies to 2 November communication from the IRA. 7 November: Mr Reynolds says he hopes peace could be achieved by Christmas. 14 November: Mr Reynolds and Mr Hume hold secret talks. 15 November: In Guildhall speech Mr Major offers talks with Sinn Fein if the IRA ends violence. 18 November: Mr Major makes Ulster peace initiative leading priority in the Queen's Speech. 19 November: Draft paper of the Republic's plans for Northern Ireland is leaked. -----------------------------------------------------------------