Ulster focus in final hours

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The Independent Online
DAVID MCKITTRICK

and COLIN BROWN

The action of the nine Ulster Unionist MPs in voting against the Government appears to have been at least partly motivated by a Government refusal to give the party assurances on the form of Northern Ireland elections.

Last night, the Northern Ireland Secretary, Sir Patrick Mayhew, was reported as accusing the party of trying to make a clandestine deal about the elections. The Unionist party is believed to have pressed for assurances about the voting system to be used in the elections which his party favours. An important concern of the Unionists was to secure assurances that the Government would not opt for an electoral system favoured by an unusual alliance of the nationalist parties and Ian Paisley's Democratic Unionists.

David Trimble, the Ulster Unionist leader, was reported by Conservative MPs to have been "very angry" at the reports of an understanding between John Major and the DUP, and had complained that he was not getting any assurances from the Government.

The Government line is that no decision has yet been made on the voting system to be used. The apparent failure to concede the point to the Unionists, taken together with Sir Patrick's reported remarks, are certain to lead to coolness between the Tories and Unionists.

Meanwhile, Martin McGuinness, of Sinn Fein, earlier warned that the situation was "very grave indeed" after he led a delegation to meet British officials at Stormont in Belfast. His request for the setting of a date for all- party talks had been turned down.

Sir Robin Butler, the Cabinet Secretary, held talks with Irish government officials in London last night to prepare the way for a summit tomorrow between John Major and John Bruton.

The package being put together last night was aimed at meeting the demands of all the main parties, with a referendum to take place on the same day as elections to a body which will appoint negotiating teams for all-party talks on the future of Northern Ireland.

A proposal is that the elections should be held in 18 constituencies in Northern Ireland. The DUP and nationalist SDLP united behind proposals for the elections to be based on one constituency for the whole of Northern Ireland.

Ministers denied that a deal had been done with the DUP, fearing it would tip the balance to force the Ulster Unionists to vote against the Government on the Scott report. "The two issues have not been linked," a minister said.

Although the Ulster Unionists have strongly pushed the idea of an election, they have been alarmed by the appearance on the agenda of a system which would place their party at a considerable disadvantage.

Mr Trimble has urged John Major to establish, as the new centrepiece of Northern Ireland politics an elected body which would select its own chairman, set up committees and decide if and when negotiations should open with Sinn Fein. The Ulster Unionists could expect to be the largest and most powerful faction in such an arrangement.

Mr Hume, by contrast, has argued that any election should lead quickly to negotiations and should be directed not at setting up an elected body but at choosing negotiating teams.

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