Unionists' hard line delivers blow to hopes for Irish talks: Major warned that Commons 'understanding' may be at risk

THE ULSTER UNIONIST party, Northern Ireland's largest political grouping, yesterday dealt a blow to the Government's hopes of reviving inter-party talks by saying it would not talk to the Irish government before a devolved assembly was established.

Its leader, James Molyneaux, went so far as to hint that he might end his party's Commons 'understanding' with the Prime Minister unless John Major agreed to change the existing formula of involving Dublin in talks.

The new hard-line stance emerged with the publication of a party document, A Blueprint for Stability, which nationalists immediately denounced as a plan to re-establish majority rule. The approach is seen as being motivated partly by a desire to cover its flank from attack by the Rev Ian Paisley in the run-up to the European election in June. Mr Paisley's Democratic Unionist party, which usually performs well in European contests, has already counted itself out of future talks. The Ulster Unionists, who have not rejected the Downing Street Declaration as Mr Paisley did, clearly feel vulnerable to his allegations that they have gone soft.

Their document calls for Northern Ireland to be acknowledged as an integral part of the United Kingdom. It advocates a new devolved assembly in Belfast with executive powers. These would be exercised through departmental committees, the chairmen and membership of which would be broadly in proportion to party strengths. Sinn Fein would be excluded.

A Bill of Rights and other machinery would be established to deal with minority grievances. Once established, the assembly would work out its relations with the Republic of Ireland, though these would be hindered, the document says, if the South did not remove its constitutional claim to Northern Ireland. Given present voting strengths, the proposed assembly and its committees could be expected to have built-in Unionist majorities.

Nationalist representatives characterised the document as a bid to return to Protestant majority rule and to freeze out the republic. The Taoiseach, Albert Reynolds, said internal solutions had not worked in the past, adding that there could be no return to 'the bad old days of Stormont'.

Mr Molyneaux said many people had told him they did not want him to get involved in the 'circus' of inter-party talks again.

The move represents a setback for government hopes of restarting inter-party talks on the basis of involving constitutional parties and the Irish government. The Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, Sir Patrick Mayhew, has recently spoken of his hopes for new talks, but it is difficult to see how these could be meaningful in the absence of the two major Unionist parties.

Mr Major made it clear at a meeting with senior US Congressmen in Washington yesterday that he was determined to press ahead with the talks. Officials travelling with him said he had not yet had a chance to study a full report of Mr Molyneaux's statement but that the British Government intended to carry on trying to make progress to a constitutional settlement.

Mr Major also assured the Congressmen that the offer to Sinn Fein of full participation in talks if the IRA renounced violence would remain, whatever the outcome of Sinn Fein's current deliberations.

Leading article, page 15

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