The Ulster Declaration: Major confronts Unionist wrath: The House of Commons

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The Independent Online
JOHN MAJOR was confronted with the outright hostility of the Democratic Unionists when he explained the joint declaration in a statement to the Commons. Ian Paisley, the party leader, said that it was an 'act of treachery', while Peter Robinson twisted the knife with past words of the Prime Minister and asked if his stomach was 'no longer turning at the prospect of sitting down with the IRA'.

'What is it that loyal Ulster has done wrong to have this further betrayal visited upon them?' demanded Mr Robinson, MP for Belfast East, in an outburst that Mr Major said was 'intended to be wholly destructive'.

Mr Robinson said Ulster's 'unfettered right' to self-determination had been taken away and included with that of the island of Ireland. 'Why is it that prime ministers who most protest their unionism are always the ones who do the greatest harm to the union?'

Mr Paisley said he found it 'offensive' to be told that, in three months' time, if the IRA ceased violence, they would be invited as constitutional politicians to sit down.

The Prime Minister had not had his constituents murdered and butchered, Mr Paisley went on. 'Maybe he would like to sit down with the godfathers of the people who would do it.' The Ulster people looked on the declaration as 'a sell-out act of treachery'.

Angered, Mr Major replied: 'The purpose of this agreement and this document is to make sure that, 25 years from now, Mr Paisley's successor does not sit there saying that to the prime minister of the day.' He wished to take action to make sure there was no more bloodshed, 'no more coffins carried away . . .' because politicians did not have the courage to address the problems.

The reaction of the official Ulster Unionists was restrained and cautious. David Trimble, MP for Upper Bann, reminded Mr Major of the euphoria eight years ago when the House 'very foolishly' endorsed the Anglo-Irish agreement. 'We are suspending judgement today on this statement in the hope that it will lead to a way out of the cul-de-sac to which the people of Ulster have been condemned for the last eight years.'

James Molyneaux, leader of the Ulster Unionists, asked 'in a constructive fashion' for a halt to the 'drift' over the last 20 years from the affairs of Northern Ireland being an internal matter for the UK parliament. Mr Major said the declaration did not commit the Government to joining the ranks of the 'persuaders for a united Ireland', or establish any arrangements for joint authority.

'For as long as a majority of the people of Northern Ireland wish to remain within the union, then they will have the total and complete support of the Government in doing so,' Mr Major said. He sidestepped calls from unionists and Tories that all weapons, ammunition and bomb-making materials should be surrendered, but ruled out any amnesty for terrorists.

John Hume, the SDLP leader, welcomed what he called 'one of the most comprehensive declarations made about British-Irish relations in the past 70 years'. He appealed to everyone who came to the table to do so armed only with the strength of their convictions, and not with any form of coercion.

'It is people that have rights, not territory. Humanity transcends nationality,' Mr Hume said. He hoped the declaration would be 'the first major step on a road that will remove forever the gun and the bomb from our small island . . .'

Mainland MPs welcomed the declaration. John Smith, the Labour leader, said there was now an opportunity for the permanent cessation of violence and involvement of Sinn Fein in constitutional dialogue, 'provided it is clear the path of violence has been abandoned'.

Alan Beith, for the Liberal Democrats, said the real question was for the terrorists. 'Why should anyone else die? Why should any more families be torn apart when it is possible to seek change, without obstacle, by a peaceful process?'

However, there was pressure from some Tories for a stronger commitment to the union. Paraphrasing the passage in the declaration that troubles the pro-unionists, Nicholas Budgen asked for confirmation that the Government 'still has a strategic or economic interest in Wolverhampton?'

Mr Major said that the Government was not going to impose its views on the majority in Northern Ireland, but that did not mean it was indifferent to their concerns. 'Our interest is benevolent, not selfish,' he told a similarly concerned Kate Hoey, the Ulster-born Labour MP for Vauxhall.

Tony Benn, Labour MP for Chesterfield, said the statement that Britain was no longer laying claim to an interest in the maintenance of the union was very important and ought to be emphasised in order to end the violence.

Mr Major recalled saying during the election that it would not be appropriate to hold Scotland within the UK if a majority of its people wanted independence. 'The same must apply to the people of Northern Ireland. That does not exclude the fact that I have my own personal views. It does illustrate the fact that, ultimately, it must be for the people themselves to determine.'