Storm over slur in leaked Ulster memo

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A British government document, which was leaked last night, accuses the Irish Foreign Minister of "all the subtlety and open-mindedness that one would expect from a member of Sinn Fein".

The stark accusation threatens to overshadow the efforts that Tony Blair and the Taoiseach, Bertie Ahern, are today scheduled to make in Northern Ireland to break the deadlock in the peace process.

The document, which was leaked to an Ulster Unionist politician apparently by a Belfast civil servant, also said that Peter Mandelson, the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, believed the Irish Foreign Minister, Brian Cowen, "has no feel for, or understanding of, Unionist concerns".

The release of the document brought into the open simmering differences that have existed between London and Dublin for several months, in particular since Mr Mandelson suspended the Belfast Assembly in February. That act was seen as badly denting Anglo-Irish relations.

Since then both governments have been keen to repair the damage but the continuing conflict between Mr Mandelson and Mr Cowen has held up efforts to rebuild the relationship,

The received wisdom is that the efforts of Mr Blair and Mr Ahern to find a formula to end the arms decommissioning impasse are hardly likely to succeed if the two governments are at odds with each other. While the two prime ministers are regarded as having a good working relationship the same cannot be said for Mr Mandelson and Mr Cowen.

The leak took the form of an internal Northern Ireland Office document reporting on conversations between the two ministers in Dublin. Its author wrote of a "vigorous exchange" involving the ministers, adding: "Cowen's line appeared to be that, beyond the constitutional acceptance that Northern Ireland remain part of the UK, there should be no further evidence of Britishness in the governance of Northern Ireland.

"It was an argument presented with all the subtlety and open-mindedness that one would expect from a member of Sinn Fein ...There was no disposition among members of his entourage to water down this line.

"It underlined the view, which I know the Secretary of State holds, that Cowen has no feel for, or understanding of, Unionist concerns, and can usually be reliably counted on to tack to the green at every opportunity." Both ministers are relatively new arrivals in their posts. Mr Cowen's appointment as Ireland's Foreign Minister caused some comment in Dublin. While able, he is not regarded as a suave and polished politician. Irish newspapers often refer to him as "Bifo," which stands for "Big ignorant fellow [or similar] from Offaly."

While Mr Cowen has built few bridges to the Unionists, Mr Mandelson angered many nationalists with his suspension of the Assembly and has sustained much criticism from them. It remains to be seen how much new ill-feeling is generated by the leaked document.

The two prime ministers met delegations from the minor parties at Hillsborough Castle near Belfast last night, andare today scheduled to hold meetings with key players such as Sinn Fein and the Ulster Unionists.

Mr Blair's official spokesman said last night: "There are a number of ideas worth discussing with the parties. We are not talking about a blueprint. What you are seeing today and tomorrow are the governments preparing the path down which the parties would have to go."

The spokesman rejected suggestions that Mr Blair had gone to Northern Ireland to deflect attention from what are expected to be setbacks for Labour in elections for London mayor and assembly and local councils. The spokesman said: "You cannot stop cynics being cynical. I don't think anyone would doubt the Prime Minister's commitment to the peace process and the people of Northern Ireland."